Beniamino Gigli was born at Recanati, near Ancona, on March 20, 1890, the youngest of six children of a poor shoemaker, who was also sacristan of the local cathedral. At the age of seven Gigli entered the cathedral choir of his home town and had his first lessons in singing from a local teacher. Because his family was so poor he left school at twelve and had to undertake menial tasks during his teenage years: he worked in turn for a carpenter, a tailor and a chemist. A chance meeting with a former employee of the great tenor Bonci (1870-1940) spurred Gigli into action and in 1907 he left for Rome where he had his first lessons. Finally in 1911 he managed to gain a scholarship to enter the Santa Cecilia Music Academy in Rome, although he was unable to meet the requirement of an ability to play the piano: he could merely blow a few popular tunes on a saxophone.
At Santa Cecilia, he studied with the baritone Antonio Cotogni (1831-1918), who was to become Gigli's great mentor even though Gigli now went to study with Enrico Rosati who polished the young tenor's technique. Rosati eventually became Gigli's permanent coach. In 1914 Gigli graduated with honours, and in July, in a glare of publicity, won the international singing competition always held in Parma. Had the war not intervened, Gigli would have had a contract at Chicago as his reward. Instead, on October 15, 1914, he made his debut as Enzo in 'La Gioconda', in comparative obscurity at the Teatro Sociale at Rovigo.
His sweet, steady stream of tone, his impeccable breath control and the spontaneity of his approach immediately brought him to the attention of other, more important Italian theatres - and to that of the famous conductor Tullio Serafin, who invited the young tenor to open the 1914-15 season at the Carlo Felice Theatre in Genoa as Des Grieux in 'Manon' opposite the famous soprano Rosina Storchio (1876-1945). In February 1915 at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo he undertook Cavaradossi in 'Tosca' for the first time. Then Mascagni himself invited him to sing Turiddu in 'Cavalleria Rusticana' at the San Carlo at Naples. (Much later, in 1940, Gigli recorded the whole opera under the conductor's baton.)
In December 1916, Gigli made his Roman debut, as Faust in Boito's 'Mefistofele' . Eventually, after singing the length and breadth of Italy, he reached La Scala, Milan, invited there in the summer of 1918 by Toscanini, to sing in 'Mefistofele' as a memorial to its composer who had just died. That was the beginning of his international fame. He soon set sail for Buenos Aires to appear for five months at the Teatro Colon there. In January 1920 he was back in Europe touring various centres. His career reached a new dimension when he made his debut at the Metropolitan in New York on November 16, 1920, again in 'Mefistofele'. He received thirty-four curtain calls. Caruso sent him a congratulatory letter.
When Caruso died prematurely in 1921, Gigli became his natural successor at the Met. He appeared in the house for twelve consecutive seasons. When the depression meant that the Met could no longer meet Gigli's high fees, he returned to Europe, and particularly to London where he had made his belated debut in 1930 as Andrea Chenier, returning in 1931 and again in 1938. He returned there in 1946 as a member of the visiting San Carlo company from Naples. During the war he performed regularly in Italy where his popularity was immense and encouraged his title as 'the people's singer of Italy'. Indeed his popularity throughout the world matched that of Pavarotti today.
In 1933 he gave the first of a long series of recitals at the Albert Hall in London that continued, with a break during the war, for the next 22 years. His outgoing personality allied to his natural talent ensured his success as an entertainer far beyond the world of opera. Writing of one of these concerts in 1935 critic Neville Cardus waxed lyrical about how the little Italian had awakened or reawakened in his audience a love of music through a love of song and how his concerts became like parties with the audience shouting for specific encores. In those days such things were frowned on by the high and mighty snobs of the music world: no matter, such immediacy, such passion engendered was its own justification and Cardus apparently realised that.
The programme assembled here represents the best of what would be heard towards the end of one of Gigli's recitals and then continued in the encores. Known generically as Neapolitan songs, they do not by any means all originate in Italy, some derive from such popular sources; others were purpose-written for popular artists to sing.
Great composers can said to be represented, in the selection here, only by Rossini, whose La Danza, a fizzing piece, his best known song, popularised by Caruso's advocacy, then Gigli's, and by Leoncavallo's attractive aubade, La mattinata, and by Mascagni whose sea-song, Stornelli marini should be better-known. When sung, as here with Gigli's total commitment, it's an outright winner.
Tosti, an Italian who made his home in London, was music-master in Queen Victoria's household and consequently was appointed a KBE, wrote songs that became the staple of tenors in recital. Pieces such as the racy Marechiare, which Gigli sings with such relish and with a smile in his tone, and the gentle Aprile are the very essence of Italian song. Another London-based Italian was Luigi Denza, whose Occhi di fata is a delightful sweetmeat that Gigli caresses sensuously as he sings of the beloved's bewitching eyes. Donaudy wrote in similar vein in O del mio amato ben except here the man is lamenting the loss of his lover's charms.
Ernest de Curtis was another purveyor of such songs with a verse in the minor key and a refrain in the major of which the renowned Torna a Surriento is a good example. The less familiar Soltanto tu, Maria is perhaps a better song, redolent of nostalgia for happy love. De Crescenzo was another composer in the same vein. His Rondine al nido is the kind of sentimental song that brought out the very best in Gigli, who teases out the vocal line with emotional involvement and every expressive device in his armoury. Another such composer is Antonio Buzzia-Peccia who specialised in such charming trifles as Lolita. It is the art of a great tenor such as Gigli to be able to convert such music not necessarily of first-class value into something worthwhile.
All the recordings included here come from Gigli's prime, the years between 1926 and 1940, when the tone was at its most golden, an easeful sound that pleases the ear in whatever register its owner chooses to employ it. Its individuality of timbre and phrasing are Gigli's own, wholly distinctive in character, a delight for ever.
ALAN BLYTH 1994