I have already reviewed
the similarly titled Naxos 'biography'
of Caruso written and narrated by David
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
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
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