About this Recording
8.110269 - GIGLI, Beniamino: Gigli Edition, Vol. 8: Milan, London and Berlin Recordings (1933-1935)

Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)
The Gigli Edition Vol. 8 • Milan, London and Berlin Recordings 1933-35

This disc includes some of Gigli’s best-loved and bestselling 78 rpm records, performances when he was in the full plenitude of his powers, fêted as a popular tenor all over the world and consequently loved by audiences far beyond those who heard him in the opera house. The tenor’s singing, alternately impassioned or smiling, appealed to the hearts of all those who could recognise a singer of the people and one who wanted above all to please his hearers. Yet there was nothing the least calculated about what he achieved. Gigli was among the most natural of singers and, as can be seen in films made contemporaneously with these recordings, he was genuinely a person who felt deeply and sincerely, inspired by basic emotions. Indeed the lack of complication or any hint of intellectualism in his singing was the basis of his success. Superior persons did and still do complain of a touch of vulgarity in his performances, decry his resort to gulps, even sobs, but these were part and parcel of the Gigli persona and without them he would not have been the same singer.

The first two tracks epitomize the Gigli who had returned to Europe after eleven successful years at the Metropolitan in New York, singing with renewed confidence. Chenier was reportedly his favourite part and he shows us just why in Chenier’s passionate defence in front of the revolutionary tribunal. Employing every rhetorical device in his appreciable armoury, Gigli’s poet appeals to the gallery, nowhere more so than in the line to which he later ascribed autobiographical meaning: Con la mia voce ho cantato la patria. About a decade later Gigli recorded the rôle complete, but he is here in stronger, fresher voice, second-period Gigli at his most potent. At the same session in Milan he recorded his renowned version of Turiddu’s farewell to his mother. At the apex of his career, Gigli pours forth golden tones: the soft warmth of his half-voice, with more than a hint of nostalgia in it, the vigorous, full-throated declamation of the closing passage are truly unsurpassed.

Gigli’s next session was in London, where he began by recording Ombra mai fù. Caruso had claimed the castrato aria that opens Handel’s Serse, the king’s paean to the leafy shade of his tree, and his successors were not slow in following his example. Though totally anachronistic given today’s view of authentic Handel, Gigli’s performance has its own justification. Canio’s jealous outpouring No, Pagliaccio, non son, recorded the same day as the Handel with Barbirolli conducting, offers the very essence of Gigli’s interpretation of verismo, not as tragically dignified as Martinelli in the same music as the clown throws off his comic mask and confronts his adulterous wife, but involved and involving. In the great passage beginning Sperai, tanto il delirio, Gigli sings with that thrilling intensity that made his Canio so remarkable.

The next three titles were among the most popular Gigli ever made. Although the 1929 Victor Una furtiva lagrima (Naxos 8.110267) is probably the more stylish, this 1933 London remake finds the tenor pouring out his thoughts with a greater breadth of tone and feeling, and the recording, with Barbirolli again the conductor, is much better. The Italianate warmth of Gigli’s tone leaps off the disc; so does the way he freely adumbrates Nemorino’s lovelorn sentiments in a seamless flow of tone. Back in Milan in March 1934, Gigli made a coupling that was bound to become a bestseller, La donna è mobile and E lucevan le stelle, now with Franco Ghione, as it were, in the pit. As the Duke of Mantua, Gigli is cheekily insouciant, irresistibly charming in his variations of tone and phrase, so much more interesting than most tenors today in this music. Cavaradossi’s lament might have been written with Gigli in mind, and he delivers it with the complete identification with the character in hand that was such a mark of all his stage rôles, and with those marvellous diminuendi for which he was famous.

The two other operatic items would not pass any test in matters of style. Don José’s Flower Song, sung in Italian, is a long way from Bizet’s intentions for his anti-hero, Gigli claiming it as just another Italian exclamation of fervent love, gulps and all, but he overcomes almost all objections by the sincerity of his reading. Gluck’s Paris is also included in the Gigli pantheon and here, whatever the stylistic quirks, the sweet mezza voce is hard to resist. For the rest it is the songs with which Gigli always delighted his fans at his myriad recitals. Bixio’s Solo per te, Lucia from the film La canzone dell’amore is typical of them in its bewitching magnetism, all the traits that made the tenor such a beloved figure there in a spinning of honeyed, unfettered tone. Martini’s Plaisir d’amour and Massenet’s Elégie, where Gigli for once essays French, are further examples of his seamless marriage of line and tone, while Mattinata again shows Gigli glorying in the sheer confident strength of his vocal powers in the mid-1930s.

Alan Blyth

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