About this Recording
8.110267 - GIGLI, Beniamino: Gigli Edition, Vol. 6: New York Recordings (1928-1930)

Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)
The Gigli Edition Vol. 6 • New York Recordings 1929-30

These were the final years of Gigli’s major career in America, and they overlapped with his surprisingly delayed Covent Garden début, which took place on 27th May 1930 in Andrea Chénier. He returned to London in opera in 1931, 1938 and 1939 and with the touring San Carlo company in 1946.

It was not until 1930 that the Met revived L’elisir d’amore for Gigli, and he won a major success as Nemorino, a rôle well suited to his stage presence. That what seemed like such an inevitable bit of casting had not occurred sooner was owing to the superstitious Gatti-Casazza, the General Manager of the company, who had nightmare memories of the night in Brooklyn, 11th December 1920 when a performance of L’elisir with Caruso had to be halted at the end of Act 1 as the tenor’s throat was haemorrhaging. Gigli’s 1929 recording of ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ is very fine, the phonation exquisitely graded, and the transitions to the maggiore sections broadly sustained. It is only in the run in the cadenza that his lack of easy velocity is apparent. Many a lesser tenor might execute that run more smoothly, but it is hard to think of another one who could sing the rest of the aria with the same sweet sincerity that Gigli lavishes upon it.

The day before he recorded Una furtiva lagrima, he addressed himself to Nadir’s aria from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, once again performing a French aria in Italian. There is great control, some well calibrated messe di voce, but to some his use of a mixed head voice in the final phrases might sound effete.

In the Sunday night concerts that were a feature of the Met in those days, Gigli had on several occasions participated in the trio from I Lombardi. In this recording the tenor as the dying Oronte is joined by Rethberg (Giselda) and Pinza (Pagano turned Eremita). This is an emotional situation and Gigli has no stiff upper lip here, as when he asks Giselda to bathe him with her tears (‘bagnami col tuo, col tuo pianto’). The closing section is quite powerful with soprano and tenor on healthy unison high Bs and the bass supporting them with columns of sounds. The same forces tackle the trio from Act 3 of Verdi’s Attila. Rethberg sings the lines of Odabella; Gigli, those of Foresto; and Pinza, those of the baritone (so appropriately named in this case) Ezio. In this rather static number Odabella seems to be betraying her beloved Foresto by marrying Attila, but only as a ruse to be able to stab him. Foresto, unaware of her motives, chides her apparent faithlessness, and Ezio wants them to stop their personal wrangling, as his army is ready to attack the Huns. As a performance, the three sing ‘Te sol quest’anima’ quite straightforwardly, but its chief interest, to me at least, is the impressive way Pinza handles his high tessitura.

As he had done before, Gigli addressed himself to that seemingly inexhaustible repertory of Italian and Neapolitan songs that belong to the genre that can be characterized as popolaresco. This material is designed to have immediate appeal; the tunes characteristically have two strophes in the minor, each rounded out with a refrain in the parallel major. Gig1i’s approach to these songs is direct, involved, and artfully spontaneous - one is always aware that this singer understands singing.

One of the most immediately approachable songs is Musica proibita by Stanislao Gastaldon (1861- 1939). Gastaldon is worthy of a footnote in opera history, as he won second place in the 1889 Sonzogno competition for a one-act opera, the same competition that launched Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana to worldwide success. The odd thing, however, is that as part of his prize, Gastaldon had his opera performed at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 19th April 1890, less than a month before the première of Mascagni’s opera (Gastaldon’s work, Mala Pasqua, was derived from the same Verga play that was the source of Cavalleria rusticana). Musica proibita has an appealing melody, and Gigli makes much of the second refrain, Vorrei baciare i tuoi capelli neri, le labbra tue, gl’occhi tuoi severi.

Albano Seismit-Doda’s Notte lunare tells the tale of a man painfully disillusioned in love, but the rising of the full moon restores hope. The varied emotions of this song are starkly depleted by Gigli. Denza’s Se is more varied musically than some of these songs, and Gigli gives a burnished account of it. De Curtis’s Carmela, sung with contagious high spirits may be taken as a touchstone of the popolaresco genre, as it seems to invite the listener to join in.

Although Gigli’s contract with the Metropolitan was to have run until 1935, he left the company in an atmosphere of acrimony at the end of the 1932 season. When he refused to accept the voluntary ten per cent cut in salary that everyone else had accepted, Gatti-Casazza dismissed him summarily. If Gigli’s future in the United States seemed questionable, he was rapturously received in Italy, where he appeared frequently all over the peninsula and elsewhere in Europe. He was, quite simply, idolised by his compatriots in these years before the war. Not only did he perform in opera, but he gave concerts, sang over the radio, and made a series of very popular films, In these movies, Gig1i’s simple directness of manner (he always played himself) compensated to some degree for his quite limited range as an actor. He relied on his expressive voice to do his acting for him. I think that this explains the continuing appeal of Gigli’s recordings. Not only was his an uncommonly beautiful instrument, but he was irrepressibly and instinctively communicative. If on occasion he seems almost too promptly emotional, one never for a moment doubts his sincerity.

William Ashbrook

Close the window