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Beniamino Gigli: The Gigli Edition, Vol. 9
Ernesto De CURTIS (1875 – 1937) Soltanto tu, Maria
Alois MELICHAR (1896 – 1976) Anima mia
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 – 1750)/Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893) Ave Maria
Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875) Agnus Dei
César FRANCK (1822 – 1890) Panis Angelicus
Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856) Il fior di loto (Die Lotusblume)
Edvard GRIEG (1843 – 1907) Un rêve (En dröm)
Francesco CILEA (1866 – 1950) L’arlesiana È la solita storia
BECCE Tu sei la vita mia
CURCI Notte a Venezia
BLANC Giovinezza
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) Inno a Roma
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901) Aida Se quel guerrier io fossi … Celeste Aida
Giacomo PUCCINI La bohème O soave fanciulla
Cesare A. BIXIO (20th Century) Ninna nanna della vita
Paolo TOSTI (1846 – 1916) La serenata
CINQUE Mattinata veneziana
De CURTIS Ti voglio tanto bene
Paolo TOSTI L’ultima canzone
Paolo TOSTI Marechiare
Luigi DENZA (1846 – 1922) Occhi di fata
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) La danza
Beniamino Gigli (tenor), Maria Caniglia (soprano) (track 14), Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Alois Melichar (tr 1-3), Bruno Seidler-Winkler (tr 4-10), La Scala Orchestra and Chorus/Giuseppe Antonicelli (tr 11-12), Orchestra/Walter Goehr (tr 13-14, 19-22), Orchestra/Dino Olivieri (tr 15-18) Recorded 24th May 1936 in Electrola Studio A, Berlin(tr 1-4); 2nd June 1936 in Electrola Studio A, Berlin (tr 5-10), 8th March 1937 at the Teatro della Cannobiana, Milan (tr 11-12), 28th May 1937 in Studio 1, Abbey Road, London (tr 13-14), 24th February 1938 at the Pro Salute Studios, Milan (tr 15-18), 4th June 1938 in Studio 1A, Abbey Road, London (tr 19-22)
NAXOS 8.110270 [73 29]

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It is always interesting to follow an artist through the years and notice development, changes in style and technique and deepened insight. Eventually comes decline, which of course is sad but unavoidable if the career lasts long enough. This ninth volume in the series, with all available singles recorded by Gigli, takes us to the period 1936 – 1938. Compared to the immediately preceeding volumes, which I reviewed earlier this year, one can hear a voice that is fuller, darker and more spinto than before. By this time Gigli was carefully moving into some heavier roles, Radames for instance. Celeste Aida, track 13 on this disc, was recorded in May 1937, in close proximity to his stage debut, which, according to Gwyn Morris’s liner notes to the LP album "The Best of Gigli" (HMV ALP 1681), took place at Teatro dell’Opera, Rome in March of that year. Alan Blyth mentions performances in Berlin in June, but they were obviously not his role debut. He certainly has the required heroic ring and the final B flat is impressive although the tone loses quality at the end. He still also manages the famous honeyed mezzoforte. Nine years after this, when he was 56, he recorded the opera complete with Tullio Serafin, and the voice is still in remarkably fine fettle. It has darkened a little, there is more effort, the vibrato is a little wider and the tone is a little dryer but, considering that most tenors at that age have long passed sell-by date, it is wonderful, even if the 1937 recording is preferable. The Bohème duet, set down at the same session, is even better, not least thanks to Maria Caniglia, who also was Gigli’s Aida on that complete recording. She had a large voice of a type that is seldom heard today but she could also fine it down and sing really softly. And Gigli as Rodolfo is always a pleasure. He loved the part. The third opera excerpt on this disc, Federico’s lament from L’arlesiana, is possibly the hightlight of this issue. This was another part that Gigli loved and it is also good to have him in the part on the cover. Here his beautiful half-voice is more or less insurpassable and the end is practically free from those sentimentalizing sobs and other devices that he used to utilize. Overall it seems that he sings with more taste in these later recordings. At this stage he was no longer only a well-known and much loved opera singer; he was also immensely popular among the general record-buying public, and the rest of the contents on this as usual well-filled disc consists of "popular" repertoire. Much of it is what we in sweeping statements call Neapolitan songs. Among these Curci’s Notte a Venezia (track 10) is a fine example of his pianissimo singing; just listen to the end! Bixio’s Ninna nanna della vita (track 15) also finds him in admirable voice, with a furtive tear visible (audible), only adding to the charm of the song. This is one of his loveliest song recordings. But all these songs have something to offer with often wonderful pianissimos, while Denza’s Occhi di fata (track 21) shows him at his most powerful and Rossini’s La danza (track 22) is buoyant and light-hearted.

Among the rest there are the ubiquitous Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus with a chorus of angels and a prominent harp to underline the heavenly atmosphere, but Gigli sings stylishly, a few scoopings apart. We also have the hybrid Agnus Dei by Bizet (track 4), which originally is the intermezzo from the L’arlesienne music. It was arranged by Guiraud (he who composed the recitatives for Carmen), provided with the latin text and was a great favourite of Caruso’s. Gigli took part in a memorial concert for Caruso in November 1921, where he sang this piece, and there is indeed Carusian shine in his top notes, but why that "bleating" sound near the end, which has irritated me for forty-plus years? Was he running out of breath or was it just an ill-advised attempt at showing involvement?

Gigli rarely ventured into the Lieder repertoire but we do have two songs on this disc and they show very clearly why. The orchestral accompaniments are soupy but the singing is glorious – and unidiomatic. Moreover he sings one in Italian and the other in French. One just has to compare his Grieg to Jussi Björling’s in this same song, recently issued by Naxos and there is a world of difference.

Two songs really stick out from the rest in an unpleasant way. It’s tracks 11 and 12 and they seem unlikely choices for Gigli, he doesn’t sound very comfortable singing them either. Recorded in 1937, when Mussolini and the fascists were reigning, Inno a Roma (Hymn to Rome) and Giovinezza (Youth) with trumpet fanfares, marching and a chorus of young men sound very much like propaganda. They were recorded in March; in September Mussolini visited Berlin and created the Berlin – Rome axis. I haven’t delved into this but there may be readers who know more.

For strict opera lovers this volume has not much to offer but lovers of good, often exquisite singing will find a lot to treasure. And Gigli completists will already have bought it. The transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn are just as fine as could be expected, the material having been previously available on Romophone. Alan Blyth’s liner notes, which also appeared on the Romophone discs, are full of insights and the only thing that is cheap about this issue is the price.

Göran Forsling

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