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8.110271 - GIGLI, Beniamino: Gigli Edition, Vol. 10: Milan and London Recordings (1938-1940)

Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)
The Gigli Edition Vol. 10 • Milan and London Recordings 1938-40

This volume carries on the good work of recording, in both senses, the glory of Gigli’s so-called third period noted on the previous issue covering 1936-38 (8.110270). Although war clouds were approaching, Gigli’s career continued in the autumn of 1938 as though everything was normal. In September he recorded four titles in Milan, including his charmingly un-idiomatic versions of two of the most popular Lieder ever written. Then he was off to the United States for his last opera performances on that continent.

In his autobiography The World Is My Audience he relates successes that autumn at the San Francisco Opera and in recitals all over the United States, preceding his triumphant return to the Metropolitan in New York at the beginning of 1939. There, full of nostalgia because he felt the house was his spiritual home, he won renewed plaudits for his appearances in four operas. Back in Europe, he recalled he had six or seven “normal” months, that is, performing in European houses, before the outbreak of war confined him to Italy and Germany, apart from a concert in Switzerland and a few operas in the, then, Yugoslavia.

His next recordings took place while he was appearing at Covent Garden in the Spring-Summer season of 1939. While there, he sang Alfredo to Maria Caniglia’s Violetta, and the chance was taken to record the pair in the characters’ Acts I and III duets. These may not be the most stylish versions of these oftenrecorded pieces, but both artists, as was their wont, sing with such conviction that critical concern can be safely laid to one side. More questionable is Gigli’s approach to Don Ottavio’s two arias from Don Giovanni, also committed to disc at the time in London. With their slidings and sobs they are typical of the Gigli manner at this time but remain irresistible because of his wonderfully golden tone, something most tenors who undertake Ottavio simply cannot equal. They are, incidentally, accompanied with great skill by Lawrance Collingwood.

Also in those sessions, Gigli recorded more of his most winning performances of Italian song. The classical Amarilli of Caccini, once so beloved of recitalists, is sung plangently by Gigli in the tenor’s most persuasive mezza voce, in a style that would not be approved of today in music of the period. So much the worse for today’s views: it is a most seductive piece of singing. Even more attractive is the tenor’s warmly projected, intimate account of Tosti’s Aprile, which was chosen to represent Gigli at this stage of his career in Volume 3 of EMI’s Record of Singing.

In October 1939, hostilities having broken out, Gigh had returned to Italy, and in that month he celebrated his silver jubilee as a singer, at Rovigo, the venue of his début. He sang Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor. Thoughts he had entertained of retirement were put aside. As he comments in his autobiography: ‘I felt in full possession of my powers, far more so than on that October night in 1914. Moreover I had received no hint that my audiences thought otherwise’. With no possibility of travel abroad he contented himself with performances in opera houses all over Italy, singing with most of his famous Italian contemporaries.

His recording sessions now all took place in Milan. In July he recorded more songs, including a ravishing account of Donaudy’s lyrical O del mio amato ben. In April 1940, he had taken part in the first performances at La Scala of Maristella, a little-known opera by the contemporary composer Giuseppe Pietri. Gigli writes: ‘I found the tenor rôle extremely congenial to my voice, full of beautiful melodic phrases and with one lovely aria (Io conosco un giardino) that I promptly added it to my concert repertory’. He recorded the piece, to mesmeric effect, during his next sessions in January 1940. It is a perfect fit for Gigli’s voice. No wonder he seized the chance to immortalise his rendering of it.

To these January sessions also belongs a typically outgoing, ardent account of Amor ti vieta from Giordano’s Fedora, which only goes to confirm the wisdom of the tenor’s decision not to retire. His singing is as easy and rich-hued as it ever had been. On the same day, 23rd January, as he recorded this and the aria from Maristella, he also joined Cloe Elmo in the last-act Azucena-Manrico duet from Il trovatore, a pretty satisfying day’s work. Manrico was a rôle he had undertaken for the first time at Rome the previous month. Admitting that it is a part for a true lirico spinto, Gigli comments that he did his best ‘not to shout it, but to sing it’, and that is how it sounds in this plaintive duet with Azucena, his supposed mother, Elmo sang Azucena to Gigli’s Manrico at a revival in February: her full-bodied, incisive singing here is a fit match for Gigli’s.

In the final sessions included here, at the end of November 1940, Gigli performs the much more taxing Di quella pira. The performance may not be as trumpetlike and stentorian as some, but, careful not to force his fundamentally lyrical tone, Gigli sings with plenty of fire. Puccini’s Manon Lescaut had been in the tenor’s repertory for far longer - he first undertook it at the Metropolitan in 1922, and it remained a staple of his vocal diet. He sings Des Grieux’s impassioned Act III outburst, from the dockside where Manon is being deported, with all his old fire. Delightful performances of songs by the popular Bixio, so much enjoyed by Gigli and his admirers, complete the 1940 discography.

Alan Blyth

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