BENIAMINO GIGLI "THE MASTER TENOR" by Colin Bain; published by Barry R. Ashpole (giglipublisher@g.mail)

560 pages, 16 pages of photos; limited edition or e-book 

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Finalmente!!!! A splendid biography of the great tenor. The author died in 2007 and at that time it was still a work in progress. His friend Barry Ashpole lost touch with Bain’s  widow and didn’t succeed in finding the author’s notes on sources for this book. He finally decided to publish the complete biography without notes, discography or performance chronology. I was able to find one obvious source. Chapter 18 “The lure of the screen” starts with: “In a Flemish journal for months in 1934 and 1935 there was a heated controversy as to who was the world’s greatest tenor, an issue that most opera lovers thought had been settled years before. Strangely, the three leading candidates were Gigli, Joseph Schmidt and Richard Crooks”. Actually, this story was not published in a journal but in a weekly Flemish movie magazine and the source was yours truly in a biographical article on Schmidt for The Record Collector. Anyway, as a professional historian for fifty years I think the book has a ring of really well researched truth. There are no sensational claims to be found; no impossible stories invented by publicity agencies hired by opera singers and published in those long gone years when the public was more credulous and less cynical.
More important, the contents corresponds with most good articles and books published in Italian like Giuseppe Pugliese’s “Gigli” (full chronology) or “Gigli fra le Sue Gente” by one of Recanati’s mayors and the Gigli book by his daughter Rina (unflattering on the personal life of her father). Colin Bain only sparingly and mostly critically mentions Gigli’s own memoirs (There is an English edition) which are sometimes wide of the mark and boorish. The tenor devotes a whole chapter to the great love of his life whom he didn’t conquer (false) and then adds he married another girl without even mentioning his wife’s name. Maybe understandable as she paid a lot of money to spy upon him.

Bain starts with a few pages on Gigli’s birthplace Recanati. It’s been more than forty years ago since I visited it but I remember the town as a quiet, modest and charming place very different from the noisiness of overcrowded beaches in Rimini, Riccione and Pesaro. And the cappuccino was better and far cheaper. Then he poses the question some of us often wondered about as the names in the family have a Jewish ring: Ester (his mother and daughter), Avramo (his brother Abraham; not a name often used in catholic Italy) and of course Beniamino himself. Moreover, Jewish families who integrated in Italy often chose surnames referring to flowers. Gigli means lily. Anyway, there is no doubt the Gigli’s were devout Catholics and Bain concludes it is impossible to find paperwork as to the tenor’s ancestry in the 15th or 16th century. Initially, the Gigli’s were rather well off. Father Domenico was an experienced cobbler and his business flourished and he employed a dozen workers. Mother Ester got pregnant thirteen times in seventeen years. Five children would survive miscarriages and infant mortality. The last and youngest Beniamino was born on the 20th of March 1890. Bain fails to note that the same day in the same year another tenor was born in Kopenhagen who would be in his repertoire as important, probably even more important, than Gigli would been in Italian operas: Lauritz Melchior. A year later disaster struck with an economic depression followed by the appearance of mass-produced factory shoes which put Domenico out of business. Meagre and sometimes even hungry days followed until Domenico got the post of cathedral bell-ringer. The family left their suburb  home and moved to an apartment on the upper floor of the church. Those like myself in Flanders who still remember the abundant catholic ceremonies and the judicious amount of music during mass will easily understand how a musically gifted child as Beniamino entered the paradise. His older brothers were members of the church choir and the small six year old boy joined them, standing on a chair. One year later Gigli went to elementary school for four years; all the formal education he got. Italian was his forte, mathematics definitely not which he later would have reason to regret. At eleven he started a career; first as a tailor’s apprentice for which he was not suited, then as a counter assistant in the local pharmacy. Young Beniamino was a local celebrity who for six years was known as the best cathedral singer. A pity recording devices didn’t yet exist. According to Gigli himself he never had doubts about his future. He wanted to be a singer and he was sure that profession would give him fame and wealth.

Bain is strong on the meagre months Gigli spent at his brother’s small apartment in Rome while trying to start his studies as a tenor. The chapter is not for nothing called “The Bohemian Years” and resembles, even surpasses La Bohème. Gigli’s brother went hungry for several days to give his youngest brother the opportunity to try his chance. Gigli’s situation finally was saved thanks to a round of recommendations by the bishop of Recanati who tried to get him a job in a noble family with time enough to spend on lessons. Meanwhile we get the interesting detail that young Beniamino amused everybody with another surprising gift. He was a talented ventriloquist. One shudders at the thought that Gigli’s voice would have been lost to the world. Bain expertly discusses the lessons Gigli took though he doesn’t mention the gap between those days and today. In a (Italian) tradition of hundreds of years Gigli belongs to the second last generation who studied voice while not being able to hear its own sounds. At the same time Gigli belongs to the last generation for whom opera was a living, vibrant art. Opera singers were asked to perform modern music which was more rewarding for publishers Ricordi and Sonzogno than repeating warhorses by Verdi. 19 year old Gigli went into military service as a telephonist  but -Italy being still Italy at the time- with enough free time to continue his studies. Bain has unearthed Gigli’s military record and tells us the tenor measured five feet and five inches (1 meter 65).

The next episode was typical for singers without formal education: signing a contract with an unscrupulous agent (demanding 30% of future fees in exchange for paying the music teacher though later relenting), changing music teacher at a whim and having to pay her for the next two years a small amount of money (world famous Gigli would later make it good). It all reminds one of that other voice of heaven: Mario Lanza. Soldier Gigli normally would have been one of the conquerors of Libya but at the time there always was a legendary colonel who decided that tenor Gigli was more important than soldier Gigli (another colonel later on gave the world Mario Del Monaco who had originally been assigned to the Eastern Front). Bain is not shy on Gigli’s personal life while in the army. The girl according to the tenor’s memories who escaped him, did not but had a relation as well with his early manager who got her pregnant and that was the end. When Gigli returned to civil life he got his big chance. There was at the Academia di Sancta Cecilia an audition for young singers who could get a scholarship for five years. Gigli hesitated for one moment as he already dreamt of making a debut but had the good sense to realize he still had a lot to learn. Proficiency in pianoforte was mandatory though the jury could make an exception. Gigli admitted he could only play the saxophone but proved he could read a score. He sang three pieces during the audition; among them “Quando le sere” which later on he was not associated with. Voice teachers competed to have him as a pupil as all of them heard the splendid promise in the voice. Gigli had two main teachers: legendary baritone Cotogni; already in his eighties. He specialized in tempering Gigli’s, indeed any tenor’s wish, to have an easy high C. In due time it was conquered though at his début in 1914 he sang the score’s high G in “Cielo e mar” and not the usual high B flat. Cotogni also worked in integrating Gigli’s falsettone in the rest of his voice. Enrico Rosati was his next teacher and he mainly worked on breath and he improved Gigli’s messa di voce. The natural beauty of the voice, the strength of his diaphragm, the smooth legato was so impressive after two years Gigli got to sing at concerts at the end of the academic year with singers who had studied for three and four years.  Roman aristocracy who attended were duly impressed as most of them still sang and played the piano themselves. Soon invitations poured in to sing at a soirée and with it came money that Gigli put out of penury. Meanwhile he met a clerk at a newspaper: his future wife Costanza Cerroni. At the end of his third year at Sancta Cecilia he got tidings of an international singing competition in Parma. First prize was to be a début at Chicago. Auditions started on the 20th of July 1914; a few weeks after the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne had been assassinated but that was almost forgotten. So many royalty had already been murdered among them the Italian king 14 years before. Among the pieces Gigli sang there was an aria from Reyer’s Sigurd; not an opera one identifies with the tenor. Gigli easily won in the category for lyric tenors while Francesco Merli came first in category dramatic tenors. Till the end of his life Merli emphasized he was first too but Gigli was pronounced “vincitore del concorso” all over. We all know the story of the line “Abbiamo finalmente trovato il tenore” on the audition card. Bain reveals those words were written by tenor Alessandro Bonci though the story only caught on in 1932 when Gigli received his report card after a performance in Parma.

(Cotogni and his pupils with Gigli top row on the right)

Only a few days after Gigli’s triumph world war I started. Farewell dreams of a début in Chicago and welcome to the Italian army. Italy however declared its neutrality and after twenty days of service the tenor could start his career at Rovigo in the still existing Teatro Sociale. Typical for those times was the reality of a stagione in a city that counted less than 30.000 inhabitants (Tebaldi told me that at the outset of her career there were still 260 theatres in Italy with an operatic season). Typical too that Rovigo could pay a big star as Tina Poli Randaccio in the title role as Gioconda. Gigli was nervous and Bain tells us the tenor started smoking Egyptian sigarettes to calm down; a habit he would continue for sixteen years. Nerves or not, the tenor’s talent was obvious and he scored a success. No travelling companies for him, no performances in small hamlets à la Pagliacci. His reputation as the Parma winner and fine reviews he got soon gave him contracts in bigger theatres in Ferrara, Genova or Palermo with stars like Rosina Storchio. Of course he had his eye on politics as there raged a discussion in Italy between those who wanted take part in the war and those who insisted on neutrality. The war party won, though not after it had asked both warring allies what was in it for Italy. France and the United Kingdom had the best offer. Germany and Austria-Hungary couldn’t compete as Austria didn’t want to hand over Trento and Trieste (Austria’s main port) with a majority of Italian speaking people (remember that often recorded war song “La Campane di San Giusto”  on the demand for Trieste). In June 1915 Gigli was once more a soldier but Italy remained Italy at that time and was not going to send such a talent to the war. Two months later he was unconditionally discharged. Thus Bain makes an end to the legend Gigli participated in the war. The tenor indeed gave several concerts and he probably wore a uniform on these occasions but he never heard a shot in his vicinity. In September 1915 he married Costanza. Nevertheless he had his marriage registered in Recanati as having taken place in May. It’s obvious Costanza was pregnant before marriage as daughter Esterina Gigli was born on the 31th of January 1916.

To me the first 80 pages of Bain’s book are the most illuminating ones as he carefully distinguishes between legend and reality. Not that the rest of the book is less interesting but from now on it is smooth sailing while the author chronologically follows the tenor’s career. War or no war, Gigli first sang abroad in Madrid in March 1917. “A small but agreeable voice” is the surprising review by one critic. This happened a few weeks after the birth of his son Enzo, baptized with that name in memory of Gigli’s début. In Rome he scored triumphs in Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Puccini’s La Rondine in its first Italian performance. Composers took notice of him as a the attendance or the absence of a star tenor could make or break the success of their opera’s (Witness Zandonai steeping deep in the hope Pertile would sing his operas). Francesco Cilea whose Adriana Lecouvreur had slowly disappeared in theatres was immensely grateful when Gigli accepted to sing Maurizio in 1918. As a result of his Rome performances offers came in to make records. Fred Gaisberg who first recorded Caruso was in Italy and immediately understood Gigli would go to greatness. He made Gigli sing a test record and thus the tenor for the first time heard his own voice. Bain repeats the well-known story from record sleeves that afterwards Gaisberg played a Caruso record of 1905. This would have been the first time too Gigli heard the Neapolitan. I don’t buy it. Gigli had studied for four years and had been singing professionally for another four years and we are meant to believe that in still belcanto mad Italy he never had the opportunity of hearing a single record by the world’s most popular tenor? Anyway the tenor signed a contract for 15 arias. I still have a question Bain doesn’t answer. Did Gigli get a lump sum per record or did he negotiate long term royalties like business-smart Caruso did? Probably Gigli took the first option as at the end of his life he was in financial troubles. The author doesn’t discuss these first recordings though appraisals are widely available on the many re-issues. Personally I think -fine as these records are- Gigli’s rich timbre is somewhat subdued by the acoustic process whence Caruso’s more baritonal sounds are more suited. Bain draws our attention to the fact Gigli made his first records barely a few weeks after his little son Enzo died of the Spanish flu. Costanza got it too but she was young and strong enough to survive. In the circumstances Gigli made his début at La Scala in Mefistofele and nevertheless  got a warm welcome. The war was over and the tenor had conquered Italy. It was time to conquer the rest of the world; especially the Americas which were not in ruin and who paid fortunes for a great Italian tenor.

In 1919 Gigli started out in Argentina at the Colon; the theatre according to him and to many singers with the best acoustic in the world. Bain tells in detail the many conflicts with impresario and conductor (Serafin) and the deep impression the tenor made on the audiences. At the same time a manager was negotiating with the Met’s general manager Gatti for Gigli performances, asking a fee that was higher than anyone’s else (with the exception of Caruso) and proving Gigli’s worth with recordings. Gatti was not impressed by the sound. A small but telling detail is the birth of Gigli’s son -another Enzo- while the tenor arrived in Argentina. This means he knowingly left his wife highly pregnant as at the time contracts were signed only a few months in advance (Bergonzi too accepted his tenor’s début with his wife almost in labour). After his return in Italy, the tenor recorded his second batch of arias and then went off to Monte Carlo. During a second season in South America in 1920 (Lohengrin was one of his roles) he finally got a cable confirming Gatti’s acceptance of his terms. He made his début at the Met with Mefistofele and though there was some carping on his acting, everybody praised his singing. Gigli made a courtesy call on Caruso and Bain tells us there is the possibility the older tenor took the time to listen to Gigli during part of a performance of Cavalleria. Was he impressed? Probably though not as much as Giovanni Martinelli who told a colleague his career was over after having heard the sound of Gigli’s voice. Anyway, after Gigli’s début Caruso would only sing another seven performances before he was no longer able to continue his career. As a result Gigli had to take over the role of Andrea Chénier. Gigli met Caruso one time more as a member of a group who went to visit the tenor on his anniversary. Gigli was shocked at the sight of a very ill man. Gigli was in Brazil singing heavy stuff like Lohengrin and Mascagni’s killer role Il Piccolo Marat when he heard of Caruso’s passing. He immediately realized the battle for the succession would start during the new Met season. Not a big battle however, as Gatti chose La Traviata for Amelita Galli-Curci’s début and asked Gigli for Alfredo. The only competitor Gigli had to fear was Martinelli (and his staunch supporter Rosa Ponselle) but their repertoire often differed. Aureliano Pertile arrived too without success and left the house after one season. Chamlee, Crimi and other hopefuls were not in the race. Indeed, it strikes me how far richer in great tenors was Bings roster at the end of the fifties, beginning of the sixties. In the meantime Gigli discussed a long term contract with Gatti who put his money on the tenor from Recanati. Once terms were agreed, Gigli’s life changed. New York would be his base; he would learn some English and the two children would help him as they went to local schools. Between 1922 and 1927 Gigli visited Italy during his holidays and gave a few concerts for free in Recanati and barely a few performances elsewhere. At the same time he was a guest all over the US, sang in South America and Europe, especially during long concert tours in Germany. Italy couldn’t pay him anymore or didn’t want to as La Scala’s boss Toscanini was on war footing with the Met’s Gatti and Gigli was a Gatti-boy. Not that Gigli made artistic decisions at the Met. He got the best roles for a big lirico but he too had to accept roles like Baldo in Riccitelli’s forgotten I Compagnacci, Giordano’s La cena della beffe not suited to his instrument and even stooping to Fenton in Falstaff. Disillusion there was too. Puccini wrote Gigli he hoped the tenor would create his “principe ignoto” in Turandot in 1925. This would have given Gigli the one chance to create a role in an opera of the iron repertoire. Nothing came of it as Gatti at the time of the real première in 1926 refused to release the tenor from his Met obligations; just to spite Toscanini at La Scala. The metronome therefore asked Miguel Fleta though Pertile would have been a better choice. But Toscanini who hated the score reserved Pertile for Boito’s Nerone as the latter one had been a personal friend. Bain scrupulously follows Gigli’s career at the Met, quoting good, brilliant and rarely less good reviews. At the same time he gives us an idea of Gigli’s daily life and his writings reveal to us what a different area it was. The star tenor of the Met always was at the centre of attention; receptions and dinners in his honour were frequent. Gigli like Caruso was an honorary Chief of New York Police and easily got protection for himself and his children by a whole squad of detectives when he got some mail asking for protection money. Motor cycled squadrons drove him from New York port to his apartment when Gigli arrived after a holiday etc. The tenor lived in unheard luxury in a big apartment and his slightest wish was taken care off by secretaries and servants. Yes, I know Pavarotti was glamorous too but that happened after Breslin and Rudas started with their widely publicized concert tours and television publicity while in Gigli’s time being a great operatic tenor would suffice. In one of his memoirs Robert Merrill explains the difference between a tenor and a baritone. Even a pudgy small tenor can lure ladies into his bed with the miracle of his voice. A baritone has to work much harder. In New York Gigli started the first known of his marital infidelities with soprano Nancy Guilford. He even mused over a divorce. Merrill was not 100% correct as Gigli broke off his relationship when he discovered the lady in flagrante delicto with baritone Antonio Scotti; almost a quarter of a century older than the tenor. Amusing too are the stories on conflicts between Gigli and other singers; especially Maria Jeritza. Every Italian tenor worth his salt has to use cloak and dagger measures to keep his rivals down and so did Gigli though he was less blood-thirsty than most members of the species. Most of the time he was very self-assured and convinced of his supreme voice. Therefore he easily survived Lauri-Volpi’s attacks, accepted Martinelli’s submission and only became more authoritarian when his vocal capacities declined and younger rivals like Giuseppe Lugo appeared. Incidentally Bain doesn’t mention Gigli’s jealousy of Lugo and Magda Olivero who told me the tenor  was furious with her when the public gave her a longer applause in 1940.

There is reticence or probably wilful neglect of reality when Bain discusses Gigli’s relations with Mussolini and his fascists. The author stresses the fact the tenor was almost completely apolitical, didn’t want to discuss politics and accepted honours with grace. Gigli admitted however he liked the sense of discipline Mussolini brought to Italy. Bain only finds one instance of Gigli taking a stance. He refused to sing in France after that country condemned Italy’s brutal and deathly invasion of Ethiopia. Bain calls Gigli’s attitude patriotic and has the lame excuse that governments of  the UK and France had promised Ethiopia in 1914 to Italy. After all, a bloody world war and twenty-two years later there was no “patriotic” excuse Italy could start to colonize an independent country. There is the small detail too that the author intentionally forgot to look at Gigli’s discography. Chances are small there was someone with a shotgun in the tenor’s back when on the 8th of March he recorded the Giovinezza; the official hymn of fascist Italy. He was not the first to do so. Martinelli already recorded it in 1924, changing the last line of the refrain with “Il fascismo vincero”. Gigli recorded the third version of a rousing song that originally was meant to celebrate to age coming of Turin students. Gigli sang the later version with: “Son rifatti gli Italiani, L’ha rifatti Mussolini” (All Italians are remade, Remade by Mussolini) and “I poeti e gli artigiani, I signori e i contadini, Con orgoglio d’Italiani, Giuran fede a Mussolini” (Poets and craftsmen, Lords and peasants, With the pride of Italians, Swear faith to Mussolini, click here to listen to the song). No mention is made too of Gigli’s political ambitions when in 1953 he was a candidate for Democrazia Christiani.


Bain follows Gigli’s success from place to place until the great career crisis of November 1931. The stock market crisis of 1929 had eaten up the Met’s financial reserves and Gatti asked his singers a fee cut of 10 %; 220 dollars a performance for Gigli. The tenor asked legal advice to Fiorello (not Fiorella as Bain writes) La Guardia (later mayor of New York) and he advised not to accept the proposal as this would have meant all contracts signed already for later seasons would be nullified. Anyway Bain admits Gigli refused “as a question of honour and artistic autonomy”. Gigli counter proposed with the offer to sing a few performances for free. Negotiations followed, here retold in great detail, until the moment Gigli and Gatti confronted each other in a raging battle of screaming and reproaches in front of the whole company. This was the end and the reader is left with a conclusion wily Gatti did it on purpose to make Gigli’s dismissal an example to intimidate other singers (though they too didn’t agree with pay cuts while some like Ponselle even got a raise one season later). The tenor left the Met and started a new career in his fatherland, the UK (mainly concerts), Germany and South-America. Together with Mascagni in Italy he was the highest paid performer. Meanwhile operatic tenors became a household word by appearing on the screen; often as romantic heroes like Kiepura or singing a fine song as Lauri-Volpi did in a bad movie. Gigli, balding and overweight, nevertheless went for movie stardom and asked Ernesto De Curtis (whom he had known in New York) for hits. The Neapolitan duly complied. According to Bain Gigli’s movies had to be in German. He doesn’t mention why though the answer is clear and says a lot on Gigli being “unpolitical”.. The great German favourites Schmidt and Tauber were respectively Jewish and half-Jewish and not acceptable to the Nazis. Kiepura already was suspect though confirmation of his Jewishness would come later. Nazi Germany put in its movie industry and fascist Italy lent its best tenor. Gigli who didn’t speak German had to learn his role phonetically. More than with his operatic performances Gigli became thanks to movies “il tenore del popolo”. Still Maurizio Tiberi of Tima-records reminds us in his book on Italy’s best known popular singer Carlo Buti Gigli’s records took up six pages in the Voce del Padrone catalogue while Buti scored twenty three pages. A vulgar sensation seeker like the American writer Zucker has been promising us a book on “Hitler’s tenor” for ages (Nobody is willing to finance his thrash) but Bain’s cries of full innocence for Gigli are exaggerated as well. Take 1936 when the tenor was active for two months in Germany, concertizing and making a second movie. In later years Gigli would sing sparingly in Germany though this probably was a result of German unwillingness to pay him in hard currency which had to be reserved for future war effort. Gigli therefore preferred the UK and once again the US. In 1939 he even reappeared at the Met and Bain mentions his hope of once again renewing his career in New York. His former colleague and Met general manager Edward Johnson refused to accept Gigli’s financial demands.

Click here to listen to Gigli live in Berlin in 1932

Bain is exceptionally good in describing Gigli’s lifestyle and family life. The tenor had a fine villa built for him at Recanati but the result was not satisfying. He simply had everything tore down and replaced by a new building which is so vulgar it has almost become art. Gigli spent money lavishly while at the same time living simply; eating with his domestics at the same table. One is left with the impression quite a part of crafts men, labourers and working girls in his town regarded the tenor as a cash cow who was not careful with his money. The author spoke with a lot of people who intimately knew Gigli and therefore his account of his family life sounds very authentic. Best known of his sources  is daughter Rina who had a promising soprano but had pains to convince her father a career in the theatre was possible. He resented and later stimulated her; even making some records with her. Nevertheless she always stayed Gigli’s daughter and got only one 45 T. of her own. Pirate recordings prove she had a healthy beautiful and strong spinto and knew a diva’s prerogatives (A recording of Madama Butterfly at San Carlo ends with her last sighs; poor young Carlo Bergonzi was not allowed to sing his thrice repeated “Butterfly” click here to listen to her). In her memoirs on her father Rina tells us of his second family without naming them but Bain has got all the details. During the war Gigli lived in Rome and owned a second house for his mistress and their three children a few hundred meters further. His wife never discovered it until his death but she too had a few things to hide. All his life he generously paid her gambling debts, gave her fine presents like an extremely expensive pearl collier. One moment she was so much in debt she sold it and had it replaced by false pearls. He never noticed it. During the war Gigli’s activities were greatly restrained to Italy with a few concerts in Germany. At the liberation of Rome Gigli was made a scapegoat and had to pay huge sums of money to a bunch of thugs who paraded as resistance fighters. Their leader often visited Gigli and used him as a juke box, ordering him to sing all the time for him alone. Finally the Italian police reacted and shot the criminal. Gigli who had already lost a fortune during the stock crash had to restart his career as once more his losses were huge. This time it was less easy. In the meantime Ferruccio Tagliavini had become a rival and by 1946 and 1947 Mario Del Monaco and Giuseppe Di Stefano joined the ranks of far younger and fresher voices. With a last Andrea Chénier in 1947 Gigli took his farewell to La Scala. Hence it were concerts foremost in Europe and South America and rare opera performances at San Carlo or Rome. In 1955 he ended his career with concerts where his world renown had started: the US. Someone who attended the last one in New York told me the whole audience wept; remembering his greatness in the twenties and early thirties and their own youth. Two years later the tenor died at a moment when he had to take some loans to keep his life style.  

This biography is a must. I rate it on the level of the best ones in the genre: Melchior by Emmons, Caruso and Björling by Farkas, Vickers by Williams, Robeson by Duberman, Corelli by Seghers, Raisa by Mintzer, De Lucia by Henstock. The book is worth every dollar cent. Moreover publisher Barry Ashpole has built a website where the reader will find extra material; e.g. a full discography of Gigli’s immense official discography. Allow me to find one small fly in the ointment. Bain (and I suppose Ashpole as well) is a fan. Critical as the author is of some of Gigli’s peccadilloes, so uncritical he is of Gigli’s voice. Everyone with ears to hear notices Gigli’s slow descent. Rodolfo Celetti in his essays on the tenor in the complete HMV-series on LP writes that Gigli’s golden age dates from 1919 till 1939. “His vocal decline which began in the immediately successive years, was slow”. Personally I’d go a few years earlier. The complete Pagliacci from 1934 is still vintage Gigli but only a few years later there are some dull patches in the voice. The magnificent liquid silver of the spectacular electric recordings between 1925 and 1932 on Victor is somewhat fading by 1936 though the voice still is a miracle. For me by 1940 the fifty year old tenor shows his age; definitely when one compares his older recordings of “Tu qui Santuzza” with the Mascagni version of 1940. His Andrea Chénier from one year later is his last great recording. Afterwards I admit I cannot stand any of his later complete opera recordings thought there are still some marvels in it (his “ E scherzo od è follia” in Un Ballo as Gigli is the magnificent tenor who can sing and laugh at the same time. Witness his wonderful 1925 “Quanno ‘a femmena vo’”. “When I go to the ladies”. Very apt for Gigli.) His post-war recordings are for me almost unlistenable. Very lachrymose (Bain is angry with people using these words), falsettones, more crooning than singing. The late Alfred de Cock attended several Gigli concerts in Antwerp and Brussels at the end of the forties and told me the tenor used his falsetto in an exaggerated and boring way only opening up now and then. On the other hand has there ever been a more beautiful voice than Gigli’s during his heydays? Yes, he sings with a built in sob too in the twenties. After all he was a verismo tenor but a wonder of sound it was. Magda Olivero stood on a scene with all great tenors from Pertile to Pavarotti. All were hard working in a difficult and nerve-wracking profession. She told me Gigli was the only one of her partners who had “la gioia di cantare” in his eyes.

Jan Neckers, October 2021