Beniamino Gigli - The Complete HMV Recordings (1933-35)
In 1932 Gigli left the Metropolitan and, with it, the Victor record company: three volumes in the Romophone series covers his years with it, dating from 1921. His return to Europe was welcomed by HMV which had made his records at the start of his career in 1918 and had already resumed contact with a best-selling series in 1931. These and some from the following year are included in Romophone's earlier volume (2/99) which included the famous Faust and Boheme arias and the duet from Cavalleria rusticana with Dusolina Giannini. Now in his early forties, Gigli was so well established that people had stopped arguing about whether or not he was 'heir to Caruso'; he was the de facto heir in terms of fame and popularity, and HMV duly made the most of him.
The arias and songs heard here on the first CD show the voice in full bloom, a bloom of a rich midsummer refulgence. In his singing, everything happened as though by nature; and so often, simply by nature, he seems to do the right thing stylistically. That is not so with 'Una furtiva lagrima', and his 'Ombra mai fu' is not likely to sound very Handelian to modern ears. But in its buoyancy and humour, his 'La donna e mobile' is captivating, and in the farewell to the mother in Cavalleria rusticana his feeling for phrase and shading contributes, along with the generosity of voice and emotion, to produce something very close to the ideal. A new development in his career at about this time took him into films, and some of the 1935 song recordings come from the first of a long series, Non ti scordar di me (or Forget me not) having its theme-song written by the genre's master, Ernesto de Curtis.
His operatic career had also arrived at an interesting phase. In 1933 he sang in La forza del destino for the first time, and that provided his heaviest Italian role to date. To come in the following years were Aida and Il trovatore, while he did not sing Pagliacci in the theatre till 1942. Yet this was the opera with which HMV inaugurated its long and successful line of complete opera sets with Gigli as its leading tenor. He is vocally and dramatically a light-to-medium Canio, but nothing in this 1934 recording would suggest that the part was not yet in his stage repertoire. He addresses the crowd as a natural showman; he demonstrates Canio's talent as a professional actor in his send-up of events on stage, and in the arosio shows his Italian heart as sadness turns to despair. All the same, his best singing is done not in that role but when 'la commedia e finita' and he reappears, as a bonus, to give an utterly charming performance of Harlequin's Serenade. His associates were ranking singers of the time in Italy, but Pacetti is too mature and dramatic in timbre for Nedda, Basiola's fine voice is not supported by imaginative characterization, and Leone Paci is a dry, unsympathetic Silvio.
The transfers, by Mark Obert-Thorn, are clear and in the Pagliacci probably more faithful than the EMI of 1989, which has more weight and body yet presents Gigli as tonally heavier than he was. I don't quite warm to the new sound even so, and making random transfers of some of the songs found that (for example) 'Senza nisciuno', despite surface noise, sounded more generous, natural and immediate on Pearl - more like Gigli as I remember him, in fact.'