GIGLI, Beniamino: London, Milan and Rio de Janeiro Recordings
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Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)
The Gigli Edition Vol. 14 • London, Milan & Rio de Janeiro Recordings 1949 and 1951
By the time these discs were cut, Gigli was very much in the veteran stage of his career, yet like his successors today - Domingo and Pavarotti - he continued his activity, both in the opera house and on concerts tours well into his sixties. Perhaps even more than his successors, he continued to portray romantic leads in the opera house, and was pretty indefatigable in touring to faraway places, unstinting in the generous outpouring of his art. He always thrived on popular acclaim and his public stayed faithful to a much-loved artist. As in this CD in recital, he mixed operatic items with a lengthy offering of songs.
Tracks  to , some of which have never been issued in Britain before, provide special interest to the penultimate issue in this long running project. All the duets with the tenor's daughter Rina were recorded in Milan, and issued at the time in Italy. Gigli, just over sixty, is in remarkable voice, and with the years he has tamed his exuberance, singing with stylistic care and a long breath.
Otello is a rôle he would never attempt on stage, but here in the Act I love duet he sings with untarnished tone and exemplary phrasing a notable and idiomatic performance on his side. Rina is a perfectly acceptable, idiomatic Italian soprano, but her tone does not fall too easily on the ear. Her career when the recordings were made was already of ten years extent, and there is some wear on her voice - she had appeared with her father at Covent Garden in 1946 as Nedda to her father's Canio in Pagliacci. She phrases here, and in the other pieces with some distinction, but I doubt if HMV would have bothered with her had it not been for her father's reputation. There is also the slightly incestuous feeling one has when listening to these duets, all impassioned love duets.
Gigli is at his most sensuous and beguiling in the duet from L'elisir d'amore. He had recorded the 'Lontano' duet from Boito's Mefistofele at the start of his long recording career, in his first sessions, in Milan, in 1918. It is true his tone is no longer as sweet or mellifluous as it had then been, but he still makes a remarkably pleasing sound. The piece from Bizet's Pêcheurs de perles, a welcome addition to the tenor's discography, is sung with ardour on both sides. What I found quite remarkable is that all these excerpts were recorded on a single day in 1951, with Gigli showing no sounds of tiring. Such is the benefit of a rock-solid technique and a lifelong care over preserving his resources.
Nine months later, during a tour of South America, he found time to go into a Victor studio in Rio de Janeiro. These four titles are extreme rarities, and their issue here is thus doubly welcome. It is typical of Gigli's apparent resourcefulness that at this late period of his career he was willing to tackle unfamiliar material. The nineteenth-century Brazilian Carlos Gomes was no mean composer, and his best operas have remained on the edge of opera-house repertory. These tenor arias come from two of his best-known works, and Gigli dispatches them with undiminished élan. Perhaps he tackled them in tribute to South America. The same is probably true of the two enchanting Portuguese songs that follow, the one utterly joyful, the other obviously a lament. Gigli in all four items seems in amazingly fresh voice, and he is helped by better sound than is the case of the tracks here recorded in Europe.
The final rarity is the second half of the Santuzza-Turiddu duet recorded in 1931 with Dusolina Giannini. Unpublished on 78rpm, this was committed to disc just over a year before the same pair recorded the entire duet in a justly famous version. As there the two artists exchange insults in an entirely uninhibited way. This is a curiosity well worth unearthing.
The first nine tracks were recorded when Gigli was in London in 1949. The first five items comprised the kind of Arie antiche with which Gigli used to start his recitals. Gigli is at his most winning in the languorous aria by Marcello, where he produces some of his irresistible mezza voce effects, and he sings Carissimi's 'Vittoria, vittoria' with his customary enthusiasm. On track 6, he revives an impassioned aria from Giordano's wholly forgotten, early work, Marcella, another example of his searching for unfamiliar material.
Finally comes a disc that was greatly admired when it first appeared. The coupling is an unlikely one, but Gigli's performances entirely justify his choice. In the first he sings the shy Nemorino's opening aria with the most seductive tone, caressing Donizetti's grateful line. Then he sings 'Nessun dorma' as though he was a singer in his youthful prime, virtually no strain on the all-important climactic notes. This is a truly remarkable achievement by a singer who was always game for any challenge. It is a bonus that HMV provided a chorus for both arias.
This penultimate volume of our series presents recordings from Gigli's later years which were omitted from the four-CD Testament set devoted to the tenor's song recordings made between 1949 and 1955. In addition to opera arias, duets and Arie antiche, there are a few songs inexplicably omitted from those discs which are presented here. Also present are all of the 1951 duet recordings with his daughter Rina, as well as the four highly elusive sides he recorded for RCA Victor in Rio de Janeiro the same year. Of these, only the two Gomes arias have previously appeared on CD, and there they were transferred a semitone sharp - an error perhaps more understandable when one considers that the discs play correctly at around 75 rpm, a remarkably low speed for the time.
As an appendix, I have included one side made two decades earlier which only recently came to light: the second half (all that exists) of an earlier version of the Cavalleria duet with Giannini which was most likely rejected on technical grounds. (It is interesting to note that the same type of distortion during loud passages also occurs twenty years later at the end of the L'Elisir duet with Rina Gigli.) Chronologically, it would belong in Volume 7 between Tracks 7 and 8.
All the photographs of Beniamino Gigli that have appeared in the 13 volumes of the Naxos Gigli Edition (with the exception of Volume 5) released to date have shown the tenor in the actual costume of operas that were in his repertoire. For Volume 14, however, we have Gigli as Otello in Verdi's opera, in which he appeared only on film sets.
Gigli occasionally sang the short Act I excerpt Esultate from Otello at recitals. In 1938 he recorded and acted this piece for the film Giuseppe Verdi. In October 1940 for the film Mamma Gigli recorded and acted the rôle in Esultate and the love duet from Act I, the Monologue from Act III Dio! Mi potevi scagliar, and the death of Otello from the final scene. Both his singing and acting in these scenes were well received by the critics.