Paolo Gavanelli began establishing himself as a major international star operatic baritone before 1990. He is especially valued as a dramatic baritone in Verdi roles. He had a series of impressive debuts to start his career. After his initial performance at Brescia (where he sang Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni in 1985) within the next five years he made first appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (as Count de Luna in Il trovatore), at Teatro alla Scala in Milan (as Giorgio Germont in La traviata), at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (as Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera) and at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice (as Marcello in La bohème.
He has sung frequently at the San Francisco Opera since his first appearance there in 1991 in Andrea Chénier. Other prominent roles in his repertory include Riccardo in I Puritani, Rodrigo in Don Carlos, Amonasro in Aida, Barnaba in La Gioconda, Iago in Otello, Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana, Sharpless in Madame Butterfly, Valentin in Faust, and the title roles in Falstaff and Nabucco. Other important venues where he has appeared in opera include the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Arena di Verona, the Paris National Opera, and the New National Theater in Tokyo.
Of his 1998 performance as Nabucco at the New National Theater in Tokyo, critic Simon Holledge wrote that "Paolo Gavanelli justified the evening," and Charles Osborne said his Covent Garden Falstaff in January 2001 showed him to be "...surely the finest exponent of the role to be heard at Covent Garden since Tito Gobbi."
He has recorded Nabucco, La bohème, Beatrice di Tenda, Poliuto, and Alzira.