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Beniamino Gigli - The Gigli Edition, Vol. 8
Beniamino Gigli (tenor), Iva Pacetti (soprano), La Scala Orchestra/Carlo Sabajno, Franco Ghione, Dino Oliveri, Orchestra/John Barbirolli, Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Alois Melichar
Recorded in Milan, London and Berlin 1933 – 1935
NAXOS 8.110269 [74:06]

Umberto GIORDANO (1867 – 1948) Andrea Chenier: "Sì, fu soldato";
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945) Cavalleria rusticana: "Mamma, quell vino è generoso;
George Frederic HANDEL (1685 – 1759) Serse: "Frondi tenere ... Ombra mai fu;
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1858 – 1919) Pagliacci: No! Pagliaccio non son!;
Teodoro COTTRAU (1827 – 1879) Santa Lucia;
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848) L’elisir d’amore: "Una furtive lagrima";
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) Tosca: "È lucevan le stele";
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901) Rigoletto: "La donna è mobile";
Eduardo DI CAPUA (1864 – 1917) O sole mio;
Ernesto DE CURTIS (1860 – 1926) Addio bel sogno;
Cesare A BIXIO (20th Cent) Solo per te Lucia;
Ernesto DE CURTIS: Senza nisciuno
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci: "Pagliaccio, mio marito ... O Colombina" (w Iva Pacetti)
Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875) Carmen: "La fleur que tu m’avais jetée;
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO: Mattinata;
Ernesto DE CURTIS: Torna a Surriento;
Johann Paul Aegidius MARTINI (1741 – 1816) Plaisir d’amour;
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1867 – 1948) Paride ed Elena: "O del mio dolce ardor";
Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912) Élégie;
Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828) (arr. Alois MELICHAR) Mille cherubini in coro (Wiegenlied, D.498);
Ernesto DE CURTIS: Non ti scordar di me;
Alois MELICHAR (1896 – 1976) Serenata Veneziana

Few great singers have divided opinion as much as Beniamino Gigli (1890 – 1957). Detractors have continuously stressed his sometimes lachrymose singing with gulps and sobs. They have regretted his frequent use of the intrusive "h" as a means of singing runs and melismas - when you have to sing more than one note on the same syllable, i e the same vowel, it should be for example "ca-a-ra" while Gigli sings "ca-ha-ra". They have said that he lacks taste. It is easy to hear this and agree but, as Alan Blyth says in his, as usual, very perceptive appreciation in the booklet: "these were part and parcel of the Gigli persona, and without them he would not have been the same singer". The Gigli admirers, among whom I count myself, point to the beauty of the voice, the exquisite half-voice, the enthralling diminuendos and pianissimos, his seamless legato (when not inserting those "h"s), his gleaming high notes and his identification with the parts he sang.

This disc, the eighth in the ongoing complete edition, gives excellent examples of both the pros and cons; but of course it’s the pros that dominate. Otherwise he would never have reached the legendary status he did. When he recorded these arias and songs he was between 43 and 45 years old. This was the stage in his long career when the freshness of voice and the deepened maturity were at their best equilibrium. He continued to sing well for years to come, as witnessed by the many complete opera recordings he made during the late thirties and early forties. Listening to his Radames in the complete Aida from 1946 one notices a slight hardening of the voice, but only slight.

Several of the arias on the present disc have a special place in my heart. Very early in my record collecting career I bought an LP entitled "The Best of Gigli". This was the first real contact with the standard tenor repertoire and I played it over and over till I knew the arias in detail. Later, when I got alternative recordings, I found that there were other tenors singing just as well, Björling for example. But when I hear these arias mentally, it is still with Gigli’s voice, which means that the sobs and intrusive "h"s are also stored in my musical memory. Hearing these tracks again only confirmed what I had always known: that these are superlative performances.

When I started listening to this disc, it wasn’t Gigli’s voice that immediately made me sit up in my chair; it was the orchestra, or rather the recording of it. If I hadn’t known that these were 78s from the mid-thirties, I would have thought they were made 20 years later. I have recently reviewed a couple of vocal discs recorded at about that time and they were in fact vastly inferior to this one. The answer to this riddle is of course: Mark Obert-Thorn. What he and Ward Marston have been doing to restore invaluable recordings from a distant past and make them attractive to a wide audience represents one of the most important achievements in the recording industry during the last few years.

And when Gigli appeared he was right there in my living room, so lifelike that I would have gone straight up to him and shake hands, had it not been for his magnificent singing, which I would not want to interrupt. This is an ideal track to play to any Gigli-detractor. Here, in one of his two favourite parts, Andrea Chenier (the other being Faust in Boito’s Mefistofeles), he displays a perfect lirico-spinto voice, free from sobs and gulps, powerful, intense, with ringing high notes. Masterly! And that goes for the rest of the opera arias on the disc ... well almost. In the Cavalleria excerpt we hear that famous honeyed mezza voce, but it also brings out the sentimentality and a fair share of sobs. As soon as the intensity increases he is again impressive. The Serse aria, historical aspects apart, is exquisitely sung with long legato phrases and perfect breath control. The reproduction of the Kingsway Hall organ is also impressive.

Gigli is again dramatically impressive and deeply moving in the last act aria from Pagliacci, maybe less so in Arlecchino’s serenade. In the first stanza he still sounds like Canio but in the second he finds his most caressing half-voice.

Nemorino’s "Una furtiva lagrima" from L’elisir d’amore is another track I would choose to demonstrate the Gigli phenomenon to a beginner. Everything is there: the honeyed tone, the long unbroken lines, the delicious pianissimos, the radiant top notes – and also, to a certain extent, the "h"s and the sobs.

The Tosca and Rigoletto arias are classic renderings and were best-sellers for many years when records were kept in the catalogues. Alan Blyth says that "Cavaradossi’s lament might have been written with Gigli in mind", and I agree. Has it ever been better sung? There is not a scrap of sentimentality – until the very last line, where the text comes out as "tanto (sob) la vita". But I also think that The Duke of Mantua is tailor-made for Gigli, and it is a pity that he was never allowed a complete recording. He evidently enjoys himself greatly, colours his voice seductively, has an exquisite trill and an impressively shining final note.

I could go on for ever, discussing track after track, but let me just point to a couple of not so positive features and then round off the review with a few general remarks.

The Flower Song from Carmen was among the 12 tracks on my old LP, and for some years I thought it should be sung like that. Then I heard Leopold Simoneau, Jussi Björling and Nicolai Gedda. They showed, in their different ways, that Gigli gives a very approximate portrait of Don José. He sings in Italian, which is bad enough, but it is also quite insensitively done and the voice is curiously and uncharacteristically pinched. On the other hand he sings a marvellous Gluck aria, that leaves the listener breathless.

A considerable part of the disc is occupied by popular songs, mostly from the Neapolitan genre, one that most tenors from Caruso onwards have found delight in; Gigli was no exception. He loved this repertoire and when I look through my notes I read comments like "soft and beautiful", "real fire", "the gold just flows from his throat", "extraordinarily inspired", "inimitable", "exquisite", "can they be better sung?". Besides these Neapolitan songs there are a few of other origin, one being the Massenet "Elegie" (labelled "exquisite" on my note pad), another being the well-known "Plaisir d’amour", sung in French and I read "sung with restraint, without fuss, elegantly and sincerely".

The one piece that should be avoided is the Schubert "Cradle song". First of all only the second half of it is Schubert; the first obviously being composed by the conductor of the recording, Alois Melichar, who has equal billing with Schubert on the label; secondly this recording must be a find for the Gigli detractors, since it could be heard as an encyclopedia of all the vices to be found in his singing: the sobs, the gulps, the "h"s, the sentimentality and a scooping and distorting of the melodic line that makes you seasick.

But this is an exception to prove the rule and the rule says that among the Three Great Tenors, and there are no prizes for guessing who the other two are, Gigli is at least on a par with the others and in some respects their superior.

Readers who have been collecting this series should add this one to their collection. Readers who have not been collecting this series should add this one to their collection – the only risk being that they will probably have to buy the preceding seven volumes as well.

Göran Forsling

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