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8.110264 - GIGLI, Beniamino: Gigli Edition, Vol. 3: Camden and New York Recordings (1923-1925)
Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)
The Gigli Edition Vol. 3
Camden and New York Recordings 1923-25
Beniamino Gigli was in the cast of the first opera I heard when I was seven years old. It was a matinée of La gioconda at the old Met: I have quite a clear recollection of Gigli singing Cielo e mar!, and an even clearer memory of the rounds of applause that it evoked. The next time I heard him in the theatre was as Radames when he returned briefly to the Met ten years later. I last heard him on stage in Rome in 1945 as Alfredo and Cavaradossi at the Teatro Adriano, shortly after VE Day. Backstage after the Tosca performance, I was struck both by his gratitude that two American soldiers had taken the trouble to meet him, and by his evident disappointment that they were the only two. Having heard him when he was 39 and again at 49 and at 55, I found him surprisingly consistent vocally. By 1945 his voice had darkened, but even in that late (for him) Cavaradossi, a performance that earned him an encore, he retained full command of his mezza voce, but when he put pressure on the voice, for example when he sang out fully, there was a suspicion of a beat in his tones.
Gigli came first to the Victor studios six weeks after his Metropolitan début, which took place on 26th November 1920, when he sang Faust in a revival and new production of Boito’s Mefistofele. That rôle had two years earlier provided the occasion of his début at La Scala with Nazzareno De Angelis as Mefistofele and Toscanini on the podium. An aria from that score, Dai campi, dai prati, was the first disc he made in the United States. The fine quality of his voice, the suavity of phrasing, are not quite as we have come to expect on his later records, but the range of colour and the distinctive timbre, even in this occasionally bumpy account of Boito’s aria, are harbingers of future treasures. The following month Gigli recorded Faust’s aria from the Epilogue of Mefistofele, and it is one of his most beautiful records.
Cavaradossi was Gigli’s fourth rôle at the Metropolitan, first assumed on 10th December 1920 when he was partnered by Destinn. He had sung the part of Cavaradossi as early as 1915 at the Carlo Felice, Genova, and one would assume that the rôle might have held a central place in his repertory at the Metropolitan. That it did not was because Gigli and Maria Jeritza, then the reigning Tosca there, did not get on well together on stage. At the Tosca on 10th February 1925 Jeritza announced during a curtain call that ‘Gigli, he not nice to me’. Apparently she had tried to galvanise the tenor into a more responsive dramatic interpretation, efforts he forcibly resisted. They never appeared together again.
The repertory of Gigli’s recordings took two directions during his first seasons in America. His début at the Met preceded by less than a month Caruso’s final performance. After the elder tenor’s death during that summer of 1921, it was natural to want to establish the newcomer Gigli as next in line, the ‘Italian tenor’ of the moment, hence his recording of Vesti la giubba some years before he tackled Canio in the theatre. The other Caruso-like direction of Gigli’s recorded repertory is found among the sizeable number of Italian and Neapolitan songs represented, even though the two tenors selections rarely overlap. These ditties, by composers such as De Curtis, Carnevali, Tagliaferri and Buzzi-Peccia, were a feature of the concert programmes of the day. Like his predecessor, Gigli treats this material without condescension, approaching it with care and communicable pleasure. His rhythmic alacrity (when he wants to use it) in Funiculì, funiculà, in spite of a glum-sounding chorus, is delightful, and his skill at suggesting the wry pathos of Buzzi-Peccia’s Povero Pulcinella earns him high marks. A curiosity is the vocal treatment with an Italian text of the cello solo Le cygne from Saint-Saëns’s Carnaval des animaux.
Returning to the first category of these early recordings, they tended to reflect the rôles he was either currently undertaking or soon to sing at the Met. In the company of Muzio, Gigli sang Walter in Catalani’s Loreley, and his recording of Nel verde maggio is a souvenir of that production. This grateful aria with its unexpected modulations affords the tenor a chance for polished lyricism; one wonders why more singers in search of unhackneyed repertory have not taken advantage of it. The two duets with Bori commemorate the Met’s revival of Roméo et Juliette on 25th November 1922. Here Gigli’s French diction, if not exactly native, is superior to that of most Italian tenors, and he almost matches the soprano’s refinement. The O paradiso, sustained with magnificent breadth was put on wax a little more than a month before the Met’s revival of Meyerbeer’s L’Africana in March 1923 that also featured Ponselle as Sélika. That staple of Caruso’s, M’appari, suited Gigli in particular with his spontaneity of feeling and his tasteful phrasing. His acoustic version preceded the Met’s revival of Flotow’s Martha with Frances Alda by some months.
The present collection also includes arias from L’elisir d’amore and Lucia di Lammermoor.
© William Ashbrook
Edited from the original notes
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