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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Beniamino Gigli: "At last we have found THE tenor!"

On-going arguments about who was/is the greatest opera tenor, soprano, alto, bass, baritone and so on are part of the frustration but also the fun of being an opera buff. To say that so and so was the greatest whatever immediately begs questions, all of which lean on definitions. By "greatest," we need to know whether we are referring to a singer's physical beauty and sex appeal (Corelli, Netrebko), their acting ability (Chaliapin—or almost any Russian, for that matter), the most extreme range (Lauri Volpi, Krauss, famous coloraturas), world-class musicianship (Domingo), highly dramatic and powerful voices (Turner,Giacomini) and so on.

If we look at Beniamino Gigli with reference to any of the above, he does not, sad to say, fare so well. As for looks, he did an excellent—albeit unintentional—imitation of Lou Costello on the stage. His musicianship, by today's standards, was poor. His range was adequate for a tenor, but for the most part he avoided very high notes, especially as he grew older. He was a reliable Bb tenor, with some recorded high C's, in his youth. While he could imply drama, his voice was not that powerful. His acting ability was non-existent. One critic, rather cruelly, once described his appearance on stage as resembling a peasant farmer following a plow. (You need to think about that one a moment.) WHY in the world, then, is he considered to be one of the very greatest tenors of all time? The answer is not hard to discover: he was endowed by nature with what is arguably the most beautiful tenor voice of all time. All else was forgiven.

Born in 1890, Gigli came from an extremely poor family, and received his first education from the local monastery in Recanati, where he sang in the choir as a boy alto. He immediately began to attract attention because of the uncommon beauty of his voice. He was able to get a scholarship to study in Rome, at the Santa Cecilia school of music. He sang in an international contest in 1914, where one of the judges, Alessandro Bonci, himself a brilliant bel canto tenor, famously exclaimed: "At last we have found THE tenor!"
They had indeed found THE tenor. Here is a real bel canto classic, from La Sonnambula:

Isn't that absolutely ravishing! It is simply one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. One reaches for adjectives like "divine," in an attempt to describe a voice that beautiful. All the qualities characteristic of Gigli are there: the effortless, floating sound, the long phrases, the exquisite color, and the masterful use of pure head voice. Gigli had an almost invariable technique for singing a song or aria. He always looked for the beauty inherent in the music, and he played first and foremost to that beauty, milking it for every ounce of potential, rarely moving out of head voice or falsetto, and then, typically, toward the end of a piece, pouring out the sound and making a climactic ending with a big high note. (This aria is an exception.) He was a smart man—one can sing forever that way, and he did. He sang continuously from the time he was a child until he was over sixty.

A great part of Gigli's extraordinary popularity during his lifetime derived from the many films he made. Most of what we can see today of him singing is from the movies. The cinema by the 1930's had usurped most of the popular audience from grand opera, with the result that more popular singing styles were less welcome in the opera house at the same time they were embraced by the movies. While Gigli himself managed to stride these two worlds, his heart was with the emerging popular music. Virtually uneducated in anything except music, he was nonetheless a very clever man, and was certainly aware of his shortcomings for an opera audience that was becoming increasingly intellectual. He did not do well outside the limits of melodic and sentimental Italian music. Some of his recordings, such as "Winterst├╝rme wichen dem Wonnemond," or "Il Mio Tesoro Intanto," are just plain silly. He sensed, however, a big opportunity in films, and this turned out to be a brilliant move on his part, for several reasons. First, it gave him a huge audience that would never have seen him in an opera house, and second, films were—curiously enough—often able to show his slight acting skills to advantage by the clever subterfuge of letting talented actors play off him, so that we look at audiences, love interests, dramatic complications, etc. while he is singing. This keeps our ear on him, and our eye on better actors. A good example is the film "Non Ti Scordar di Me." He sings the title song in front of a curtain (he portrays an opera singer in the film) while his beautiful love interest sits in the front row, weeping. We see much more of her, but we hear the unequaled voice of Gigli:

In spite of his penchant for movies and sentimental favorites, however, he did not abandon the operatic repertoire. Quite the contrary. He was everywhere renowned for his opera performances, both in person and on record. Here is what is clearly one of the best recordings ever of Nadir's aria from "The Pearlfishers":

What can one say? It is illustrative to look at some of the viewer comments below these videos. They are very consistent and endlessly admiring, even today, of the nearly inexpressible beauty of that voice. Tenors come and tenors go, but Gigli is forever; eternal evidence of the fact that while admirers of the arts may be moved by many things, they are moved by nothing quite so much as by beauty.


corax said...

at last we have found THE opera blogger! thank you sir edmund for another splendid post. amen and amen.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my friend. Yes, it is hard to find much disagreement on Gigli. What a magnificent voice! Only superlatives have any meaning trying to describe a natural talent like that. Viva bel canto per sempre!

Anonymous said...

Great article.
Poor Gigli , I imagined him with the plow:) It seems to me that old bel canto school was closer to pop- or folk singing (of that period) than modern operatic school. There is a common opinion that pop-singers perform “for pleasure" , while opera singers work hard. Sometimes opera artists look not like farmers, following a plow, but some sort of stevedores: they have to work with such big and heavy masses of sound. Actually, I got used so much to this impression, that it was strange to listen to some old singers like Gigli, Lemeshev, Tagliavini. They have effortlessness, which is considered typical for pop-singers, and even the most inexperienced listener can enjoy their performance . And at the same time they are great masters. Gigli is fantastic, of course. When I listen to him, I can imagine the evolution of singing , from folk performers to great opera stars.
As I remember from your article, Galli-Curci was almost self-thought.It seems unbelievable now, that a young lady can sing at home for some time, and after that to perform with the orchestra. Nezhdanova studied only for three years at Umberto Mazetti’s class, and her stardom began almost from the first performance in the Bolshoi. Both were brilliant, but it also seems to me that methods of teaching were too good in those years.:)


Edmund St. Austell said...

Yours is a very perceptive and penetrating comment, my friend. Yes, you can indeed trace the evolution of singing styles from the near popular (or perhaps church choir) voice to the stentorian and dramatic voices that tend to characterize much of opera today. I believe there is a natural pedilection on the part of most music lovers for the easier and more natural singing styles of bel canto. Something very important was lost when opera (most particularly via Wagner)began grinding out long and ponderous music dramas with historical and mythological themes. It has its place, obviously, and many are fond of that particular use of the singing voice, but the gentle lyricism of bel canto, the smaller and more intimate theaters, with smaller orchestras designed to actually support singers, as opposed to competing with them; all this has a very intense appeal. I know it does for me. In such an arena, Gigli was unparalleled.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I could listen to him all day.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes indeed! That's what it's all about.

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

This is an wonderful article and you much deserve praise, because Americans can never understand the grandissimo Beniamino Gigli. All they think of is the rude tenor who didn't take a pay cut.

I think the description of Gigli as the peasant following the plough is true, and even not as nasty as you think. The peasant following the plough, he must manipulate it carefully to plough correctly, and not be distracted. And so did Gigli.

While other tenors used stunning high notes (and very little else) for show-stopping effect or jumped around on stage like madmen, Gigli kept his hand on the plough, continuing at the same pace, the same way, ignoring the others with his independence; capturing the audience with his masterful technique: singing with heavy cover, singing with lighter cover, singing open, singing closed, using the mezza-voce, using falsetto, to create the chiaroscuro and the overtones and build the characterization.

Especially in the later part of his career, his characterizations were so vivid! People say he moaned too much, he cried, he sobbed, he "crooned" he yelled too much. In the records, this disturbs some people (not I), but in the theatre, it locked me (and others!) to the chair and made us cry. He sang with so much heart, he was such a rare tenor, a tenor of advanced vocalism and strong character!!

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much. Yes, I just adore Gigli. I have more recordings of Gigli than of any other opera singer. I believe the case can be made that Beniamino Gigli had the most beautiful tenor voice of all time!

Anonymous said...

"On-going arguments about who was/is the greatest opera tenor, soprano, alto, bass, baritone and so on are part of the frustration but also the fun of being an opera buff."

Please, with all due respect, let me correct you. There are no such arguments. According to the very famous Classics Today ( ), Villazon is better than Gigli. And than Vinas, and Caruso. And than anybody else probably. (also, Netrebko got better scores than Ponselle) Villazon is perfection incarnate according to that site. Just compare the grades these people got. Farrar said that only after putting aside Caruso and Ponselle one could discuss the rest. I think she actually meant one had to put aside Villazon and Netrebko, and then discuss the rest.

Edmund StAustell said...

Ha, ha. Yes, cleverly well spoken! You make an excellent point. Thank you for the comment. Guess I had better get with it and re-order my priorities:)

Arcidiacono said...

Hi! First off, great article! I just wanted to say that I completely agree with you and I share your sense of enthusiasm for Beniamino Gigli. In my eyes, he truly is the greatest tenor, based on the raw beauty and emotion of his voice, there is something that I'm not quite able to put my finger on when I'm trying to describe his voice with words. I even showed my wife (who doesn't like opera at all) some of his arias and even she couldn't help but say "Wow, he's amazing". I appreciate all great tenor's voices, but after hearing Gigli (especially in Bizet's Nadir Aria, Je Crois Entendre Encore, Prendi L'anel ti dono, Una Furtiva Lagrima) I just can't find another tenor that matches the sheer beauty of Gigli's Bel Canto.

Edmund St. Austell said...

I fully agree. Many believe that Gigli's was the most beautiful tenor voice of all time, and there certainly is a mountain of evidence to support that idea. Thanks for the comment, much appreciated!

Andrew said...

First heard Gigli on the radio when I was about 5 or 6 years old. We were all gathered round the radio spellbound listening to this man. Now I'm 71years old and Gigli can still bring a tear to my eyes when I listen to him sing. The beauty of his voice can melt any cold heart. For me, he is the greatest tenor of all.