About this Recording
8.111102 - GIGLI, Beniamino: Gigli Edition, Vol. 13: London Recordings (1947-1949)

Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)
The Gigli Edition Vol. 13 • London Recordings 1947-1949


By the time the present recordings were made Gigli was in his late fifties, yet his career showed little sign of of declining. As he recounts in his autobiography he was in demand all over the world, and - indefatigably - he kept up a heavy schedule of concerts, mixed with sporadic appearances in opera. Indeed he relates that he is not going to bore readers with the many places he visited as it would become like a railway timetable. His popularity was enormous, his singing loved by a public well beyond those who regularly attended opera houses.

Gigli made these recordings at the time he was touring around Britain, in the winter, 1947-8, and the spring of 1949. Although there are now a few threads in the golden tone, they are seldom apparent. In this fourth period of his career he sensibly reserved his resources, using the middle register of his voice to alluring effect, although he shows in the moments he puts pressure on his tone in the upper register, that he is still capable of sustaining his top notes with appreciable élan, and the quiet mezza voce is as honeyed as ever, as he evinces in almost all of these songs.

Gigli's concerts often began with arie antiche, a kind of amorphous term to cover songs and airs by Italian composers bridging the 17th and 18th centuries. Today we are re-discovering the works of composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti, Cesti and Caldara, and performing them in what is considered an authentic manner. In Gigli's day they were virtually forgotten apart from their occasional performance by Gigli and other singers in recitals, transposed to suit the voice in question. As is his wont, Gigli pours his heart out in these predominantly sad, minor-key pieces, adjusting them to his own requirements and gently caressing the line in his own inimitable way. Heard on end they can seem monotonous, but taken one at a time, as was the intention in the days of shellac discs, they are all beguiling. 'Arianna's lament', all that survives of Monteverdi's lost opera on the Ariadne legend, is really a mezzo piece, but nobody is going to criticize Gigli for including it in his repertory when he sings it with so much feeling. The same goes for Cara selve from Handel's Atalanta.

Gigli had an eclectic repertory, as this CD eminently illustrates. It begins with an entirely unidiomatic account of Mozart's Das Veilchen sung in Italian (Gigli was not afraid to sing in French and English, as the next two items tell us, but baulked at German). Nevertheless, even given the dullish orchestral arrangements, Gigli makes the music his own. The often-sung 'Berceuse' from Godard's otherwise forgotten Jocelyn, was always a Gigli favourite in concert, and he lavishes his silkiest tone on its endearing melody. There his French is strongly accented, as is his English in 'Ah! Sweet mystery of life' from Victor Herbert's once-popular operetta. Later in this programme he sings two typically Sicilian songs, one by Mazziotti and one by Gibilaro, originally paired on a ten-inch 78rpm record. These were obviously favourites with the tenor, and he brings to them all the passionate sincerity that was always a hallmark of his interpretations, including audible sighs in the second of them.

In some ways the most interesting pieces on the whole disc are those originally paired on DA 1937. These are arias from operas that Gigli undertook comparatively late in his career, and he has something discerning to say about both in his memoirs. Alfano's Don Juan de Manara was originally presented as L'ombra di Don Giovanni in 1914. Later the composer worked on it constantly, making many emendations. In its revised form it was given its première at Florence's Teatro Comunale in 1941 with Tullio Serafin conducting. Gigli studied his rôle with the composer and made several suggestions for altering the score, one of which caused a duet to be turned into the gloriously lyrical aria we have here. No wonder it proved the evening's greatest success. In spite of the opera's triumph at the time, Gigli perceptibly comments that, for all its merits, the work is flawed, as it shows Don Juan as a reformed character from the start and has no drama worth speaking of.

Four years earlier, at the Rome Opera, Gigli first attempted the title part in Mascagni's pastoral comedy, L'amico Fritz. He relates that it became his favourite Mascagni opera, and we can hear why, listening to his perfect incarnation of the shy but passionate hero displayed here and in the better-known 'Cherry Duet', which he recorded in 1951 with his daughter Rina (to be included in Vol. 14). One can judge why Gigli thought the rôle perfectly suited to his voice, while realising that the opera's characterisation was one-dimensional.

In spite of rather dozy accompaniments, from a presumably compliant conductor and orchestra, this disc shows that the great tenor still had much to offer in the latter stages of a career that had a few years to run. Above all, the performances disclose once more Gigli's highly individual timbre, his outgoing personality and self-evident charm of style.

Alan Blyth © 2006

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