Preview: L'Elisir D'Amore, Royal Opera House, London

Gavanelli prepares his potions of love
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The Independent Culture

Paolo Gavanelli bursts into the room like a whirlwind, flings himself down on a sofa and beams at me over his ample tummy.

As one of the great Verdians of our day, and a definitively tragic Rigoletto, his physical presence is extraordinarily vivid, as is the way his career took root. "I was just five years old when I was taken to hear Traviata," he says. "And it was like lightning, something happened to my brain. My mother told me later that I was like an ice man. I made no movement at all throughout the entire evening. I was hooked."

His training was exceptionally rigorous. "I didn't sing my first aria until I had done five years of exercises. Today, we have a lot of young singers who rise high early but then fall down. When you build a house, you need a solid foundation, and the voice needs that too, you must build support for it. Singing 'ah-ah-ah' up and down the scale is too easy – the difficult thing is to sing one note with different vowels. That is the real training." Whereupon he demonstrates. "How many good Rigolettos or Boccanegras are there today? In the Sixties, we had 30 Verdi baritones; today, very few.

"When I was young, we were told we had to plan our career not for five years but for 40, and should expect to arrive at the top after 30 years, and for the last 10 you are gently slowing down." So, at 48 he is not yet at his peak? "No. All my life I am studying."

He initially turned down Covent Garden's offer of the role of the charismatic medicine-man Dulcamara in Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, because his big aria goes too fast for what he calls spiccata di voce. "But then I thought, I must meet that challenge. And in this production, Dulcamara is a serious man, and the life which he presents in his little onstage theatre must somehow seem more real than the real life outside."

The odds are that this ebullient Sicilian will pull off this trick, too.

13 November (020-7304 4000)