About this Recording
8.110272 - GIGLI, Beniamino: Gigli Edition, Vol. 11: Milan, Berlin and Rome Recordings (1941-1943)

Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)
The Gigli Edition Vol. 11 • Milan, Berlin and Rome Recordings 1941-1943

Gigli’s recordings between 1941 and 1943 were made during the war at a time when his appearances were for the most part restricted to Italy. In his Memoirs the tenor, by then in his fifties, recalls that they were six years “of relative immobility and isolation”. He goes on to say “I did what I could in the way of benefit recitals and performances for the troops; and, of course, the opera houses carried on as normally as possible. In their own way they were rendering a service; the need for music is perhaps deeper in time of war than at any other”. Then, rather annoyingly from the point of view of posterity, he declines to go into too much detail about his performances.

We do know from the archives of La Scala that he sang Radames, Don Alvaro and Loris (Fedora) in that house in the period covered by these recordings, and as he tells us, just before, in 1940, he undertook the taxing title part in Donizetti’s Poliuto, and at Florence’s Maggio musicale in May 1941 he sang a new part, the title rôle in Alfano’s Don Juan de Manara, which he studied with the composer. In July 1941 he managed to get to Croatia to sing Radames in Zagreb and in la traviata in Ljubljana.

On 24th December 1941, at the Rome Opera, he undertook – in Italian – Don José in Carmen for the first time. As the singer puts it: “That night I was carried away, I lost myself in the rôle. . . I was really in love with Carmen, consumed with longing for Carmen.” By the time of the terrible dénouement, he added, “I had lost all recollection of tenor Beniamino Gigli. I was Don José. Love and despair welled up from my heart and almost choked me.” Those words prove just why he could so move his listeners in whatever he tackled.

Two months later he recorded the Micaela-José duet with his daughter Rina as Micaela. For a while he promoted her career and indeed sang opposite her with the San Carlo company at Covent Garden in 1946 in Bohème, but truth to tell she had inherited few of the tenor’s vocal genes, her tone having an unpleasing edge to it, but it is good to hear Gigli himself, suave as ever, in this attractive duet.

In April 1942 he was back with a favourite part, Canio in Pagliacci in Rome. He had recorded the rôle complete back in 1934, but felt he was not yet ready to sing it on stage, so this was another late ‘first’ for the famous man. On this disc we hear Gigli not as Canio but as Tonio singing the opera’s Prologue, perfectly feasible for a tenor as the part lies high for a baritone. That was recorded in August 1942, when Gigli was in Berlin making the film Lache Bajazzo. While in Berlin he also recorded, in Italian, a song from a Millöcker operetta, perhaps at the request of his hosts. He – predictably – turns it into something very Italianate.

Among the opera recordings included here, it is interesting to hear Gigli in an aria from Lodoletta, an opera he had appeared in back in 1917, right at the start of his career. His obvious affinity with Mascagni, whom he knew well, is shown in the long scene from that composer’s little-known Isabeau. In these he shows little or no sign of vocal decline, the tone as fresh as it ever was. Des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut was a rôle he first essayed in 1922 at the Metropolitan. In the character’s impassioned Act 2 aria, he is as ever the involved and involving artist his public adored.

Federico’s Lament from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana, recorded in June, 1941, was another recording to mark Gigli’s first attempt at a rôle. He had first met the composer in 1915, but it was not until 1941 that he sang Federico, at the Rome Opera. He writes about studying it with the composer, who consented to Gigli singing a high, unwritten B natural at its close. Federico is expressing all the pent-up sorrow of his life, and Gigli convinced Cilea that this needed a climactic end rather than the fading-away in the score

In November 1941 he was to record Andrea Chénier complete, and perhaps his account of Chénier’s impassioned plea for liberty in Act 1 was trial run for that set. The performance is not stylistically as pure or tonally as fresh as the recording of it he made almost twenty years earlier, but in what he declared to be his favourite part, he is never less than magnificent.

Don Alvaro is a part he undertook with some reluctance as it really calls for a tenore di forza, which Gigli never possessed, yet his only account of that character’s nostalgic Act 3 aria is pretty marvellous. Few tenors today would equal his technical control and his management of the voice. For the rest Gigli offers ephemeral material popular at the time, on which he lavishes all his customary care.

© 2005 Alan Blyth

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