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Beniamino GIGLI
(tenor) 1890-1957

A Life In Words And Music - written and narrated by Graeme Kay - includes 40 original recordings (1918-1952)
CD 1
'I was born with a voice and very little else...'
Family background
Gigli's stage debut and poverty-stricken start
Service in the household of Countess Spannocchi
Colonel Delfino, and Giovanni Zerri's legal agreement
A hospital visit and a scholarship
Gigli graduates and makes his debut; he goes for the high B flat
Marriage, Rome and a tour to Spain
A letter from Fred Gaisberg of HMV
Gigli conquers South America, and receives an offer from the Met
Metropolitan Opera debut in Mefistofele
CD 2
The critics' verdict, and more performances
Gigli's fate becomes entwined with Caruso's
Who will be Caruso's successor?
Life forms a regular pattern, and Gigli learns to sing in foreign languages
Manon at the Met
Summer in Italy, then back to New York and some physical training
Flourishing finances and professional rivalries
Crushing remarks; the attraction of radio
A new decade, and the honour of playing Nemorino at the Met
CD 3
Debuts in Paris and London, and London's critical reception
Crisis: the death of Gigli's mother, and tension at the Met
Departure from the Met
America's loss is Europe's gain
Speech: Gigli in an interview at the Savoy Hotel, London - 1946
Cherished London reviews
Recording reflects the drama
Touring, Gigli's working relationships, and a new turn of events
Film popularity, Hitler and Goebbels, and the Caracalla tradition
Voice expert John Steane's recommendation
A new recording of Tosca
Patience and hard work produce 'a perfect set of master recordings'
A return to America and the Met
The recording of Madama Butterfly
CD 4
War keeps Gigli in Italy
Introductory speech to Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni - 1940
Translation of the speech
More role debuts, Gigli's wartime films, and Andrea Chenier
John Steane's verdict
Rome Opera House rallies wartime spirits
Gigli's political affiliations
Post-war Italy: an HMV manager's report
Covent Garden with Rina, then a tour of Britain and Ireland
Speech given by Gigli after a concert at the Royal Albert Hall 1952
The final phase - and no thoughts of retirement
A last visit to the USA
Gigli's death, his obituaries, and his place in the tenor lineage
Various orchestras and conductors. Recorded 1918-1952
Bargain Price NAXOS 8.558148-51 [4CDs: 78.26+75.27+79.33+79.06]


Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS


I have already reviewed the similarly titled Naxos 'biography' of Caruso written and narrated by David Timson (link). I concluded that review by noting how much more enjoyable was the mixture of narrative and music than a dry-as-dust biography. So it with this issue written and narrated by Graeme Kay, a well known writer on music in the UK. Mr Kay was sometime editor of several prestigious music magazines as well as creating the 'Foundation Course' for the honours degree in Opera Studies at Rose Bruford College. Kay's academic background doubtless influenced several important differences by comparison with the Caruso issue. For a start the recording years of the entire list of musical items, forty in all, are given. Secondly, there are longer passages of narrative between the musical items. This, together with Gigli's long singing and recording career, extending from the days of acoustic 78s to the LP, also accounts for the very full timings of all four CDs.

Kay starts by quoting Gigli's introduction to his memoirs where the singer's words show mature introspection: 'I was born with a voice and very little else: no money, no influence, no other talents. Had it not been for the peculiar formation of my vocal chords, I should at this moment be planning tables or sewing trousers, or mending shoes as my father did, in the little Italian town of Recanti where I was born on March 20th, 1890. But God gave me a voice and that changed everything. I was good at singing, and nothing else. I enjoyed singing, and nothing else: what else could I do?' The question leads directly in Gigli's rendering of Enzo's 'Cielo e mar' from La Gioconda, set down at the singer's first recording session in November 1918. Enzo was the role in which Gigli made his professional debut in Rovigo on 15th October 1914. This launched him on a singing career lasting forty-one years. This included broadcasts, films, recordings, innumerable recitals as well as countless stage appearances at all the world's great opera houses. The voice in this early recording is slightly nasal and not as open-throated as it was to become, although admirable diction and musicality are in evidence.

Gigli was born, the youngest of six children, to a very poor family who did not view music as a respectable or secure trade (CD 1 tr. 2). The boy learned the rudiments of music singing in the local Cathedral choir and served in the local chemist shop. He played saxophone in a local band an experience that introduced him to the music of opera. The young Gigli came under the influence of a cook and amateur opera buff who found him a teacher who gave him singing lessons, two hours a day, on credit (CD 1 tr. 5). More luck came with the call-up for military service. He sang 'La donna é mobile' for the opera-loving Colonel who despatched him to Rome where his friend the cook introduced him to Bonci. When his regiment went to war Gigli was sheltered in a hospital job (CD 1 tr. 9). He got a scholarship to the prestigious St. Cecilia Academy even though he could not meet the basic requirement of playing the piano. Gigli's studies finished in the summer of 1914 at age 24. He sang 'O Paradiso' at his graduation ceremony going on to win the Parma competition against 105 others. This certainly advanced his career. In the third of his debut performances as Enzo he interpolated a high B flat for the written G in 'Cielo e mar' and the audience went mad; Gigli was on his way (CD 1 tr. 11). Tulio Serafin chose him for Genoa (Des Grieux in Manon). Cavaradossi at Palermo quickly followed and where the Palermo Tosca admired the way he caressed the notes. We can share that admiration in his rendering of 'E lucevan le stelle' (CD 1 tr. 12) recorded in 1918.

With a secure future ahead of him Kay recounts how Gigli married and made a triumphant debut in Rome with his former Colonel an honoured guest (CD 1 tr. 13). His first engagement abroad, in Spain, was quickly followed by Puccini selecting him, despite his rotund figure, for leading roles. Fred Gaisberg, vocal guru at HMV, extolled his strengths, describing Gigli as having greater flexibility than Caruso (CD 1 tr. 15). Test pressings were made and Gaisberg signed Gigli to record arias from roles he had sung on stage. In February 1919 he sang Loris in 'Fedora' at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples with his parents as guests in a Grand Tier box (CD 1 tr. 17). Then it was on to South America where he discovered that he was more a commodity than an artist. However, the trip led to a ten week contract for the autumn of 1920 at the New York 'Met'. This was the most powerful opera house in the world at that time, under its General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, former director of La Scala. Gigli's debut, as Faust in 'Mefistofele' (CD 1 tr. 18), on 26 November 1920 was rapturously received. He took 34 personal curtain calls. Gigli's rendering of the aria 'Giunto sal passo estremo', recorded the following year (CD 1 tr. 19), illustrates a true lyric quality with no sign of the earlier nasality. Here was singing characterised with that lovely honeyed hovering around the 'passaggio' that was to be Gigli's hall-mark throughout his career. The critics' response to his debut overlapped Caruso's accident on December 3rd and Gigli's fate became entwined with that of his illustrious predecessor with inevitable and unwelcome comparisons (CD 2 tr. 3). However, with the great man gone forever from the 'Met', Gigli's Andrea Chenier on March 7th 1921 ensured that it was he who stepped into the vacant shoes. He was then given the honour of opening the 1921-22 season on November 14th. In every previous season since 1903, except one, that honour had gone to Caruso (CD 2 trs. 5-6).

The second disc of this interesting issue, so well constructed and narrated by Graeme Kay, deals in detail with Gigli's time at the 'Met'. It is interspersed with relevant musical extracts. Particularly appealing is Gigli's singing of 'Quanto é bella' from L'Elisir d'Amore (tr. 21), recorded in 1925. It was a role that particularly suited Gigli's 'mezza voce' strengths. It also represents the esteem he was held in at the theatre when he was chosen for the first production of the opera since Caruso's collapse during a performance in December 1920.

Despite his contractual obligations at the 'Met', where one twelve month contract succeeded another, Gigli debuted to acclaim in London and Paris (CD 3 tr. 1). His contacts in Europe were to be particularly important, when in 1932 he broke with the 'Met', in acrimonious circumstances. This was over a proposed pay cut to all artists as the theatre shared the world's economic downturn. Kay deals with this matter and Gigli's attitude to it at the time, and later, in detail. It followed the death of the singer's mother to whom he was greatly attached (CD 3 trs. 3-4). Europe gained from America's loss (tr. 5). Gigli did not return to America until October 1938, taking in San Francisco before the 'Met'.

Particularly interesting in the history of recorded opera is the recording, for issue on 78s, of complete works during the 1930s. This happened even in the wartime Italy of the early 1940s. Gigli features in many such recordings and generous examples from these are included. Particularly appealing are 'Che gelida manina' and 'O soave fanciulla', with Licia Albanese. These are from the 1938 La Bohème (CD 3 trs. 14 and 16). There are equally welcome and vocally thrilling excerpts from the1938 Tosca, Cavaradossi being one of Gigli's more rousing early roles (CD 3 trs. 18 and 20). There is also Cavalleria Rusticana (1940 CD 4 tr. 4), Andrea Chenier (1941 CD 4 trs. 6 and 8) and Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera with Maria Caniglia as Leonore (1943 CD 4 trs. 10-12). All of these come over with a clarity and dynamism that speaks well for the care of the restorers. The latter recordings bring into focus Gigli's wartime singing activities and Kay examines the allegations of the singer's support for the fascist regime and their refutation. Once those issues were out of the way, on May 4th 1945 Gigli was back at the Rome Opera in La Forza del Destino and performing benefit concerts for the partisans.

With his voice in excellent shape, as evidenced by the recordings, Gigli spent many of the post-war years on the recital platform. There I was privileged to hear him. This was before his final visit to the USA and retirement in 1955 (CD 4 tr. 21).

He wrote a very self-aware memoir and died of pneumonia on the 30 November 1957, aged 67. He was given the greatest funeral ever accorded to an Italian singer (CD 4 tr. 23)

Despite the foregoing, I have barely touched on the mass of interesting details about the singer, his roles and personality, as well as the workings of 'the opera business' in those years. These discs have given me great pleasure. Sure, I greatly enjoy reading singers' biographies and have an extended library of them but when, as here, the words are interspersed with relevant musical excerpts, the enjoyment is massively enhanced. This is no mere sampler of Naxos's emerging 'Gigli Edition'.

I look forward to the next in this Life and Music series in the hope that it will be as expertly researched and presented as this issue by Graeme Kay. It is strongly recommended to all those interested in singers and singing as well as to lovers of this rather rotund little man who possessed the most beautiful and honeyed 'mezza voce' the tenor business has ever heard. As added luxury the booklet has a brief essay, a chronology of Gigli's life and career and a 'select biography' of eighteen items.

Robert J Farr

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