March’s Singer of the Month: Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)

b Recanati, 20 March 1890; d Rome, 30 Nov 1957). One of the most beautiful voices there ever was belonged to Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli. In Rome, after lessons from Agnese Bonucci, he won a scholarship to the Liceo Musicale; his teachers were Cotogni and Rosati. In 1914 he won an international competition at Parma, and on 14 October that year made a successful début in La Gioconda at Rovigo. In 1915 his Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele was highly appreciated at Bologna under Serafin and at Naples under Mascagni. Spain was the scene of his first successes abroad, in 1917. The climax of his early career was his appearance in the memorial performance of Mefistofele at La Scala on 19 November 1918. On 26 November 1920 he made a brilliant début (again in Mefistofele) at the Metropolitan Opera, where he remained as principal tenor for 12 consecutive seasons, singing no fewer than 28 of his total of 60 roles.

In the lyrical and romantic repertory, Gigli was regarded as the legitimate heir of Caruso (Martinelli excelled in the more dramatic and heroic parts). The operas in which he was most often heard were La bohème, La Gioconda, L’Africaine, Andrea Chénier and Mefistofele. His Covent Garden début was in Andrea Chénier on 27 May 1930, with subsequent appearances in 1931, 1938 and 1946. In 1932 he left the Metropolitan, declining to accept a substantial reduction of the salary paid him before the Depression. Thereafter he pursued his career more actively in Italy, elsewhere in Europe, and in South America, returning to the Metropolitan, for five performances only, in 1939. A favourite of Mussolini, Gigli was at first under a cloud after the dictator’s fall, but returned to sing in Tosca at the Rome Opera in March 1945, and in November 1946 reappeared at Covent Garden with the S Carlo company in La bohème, with his daughter, Rina Gigli, as Mimì. He continued to appear in opera at Naples and at Rome as late as 1953, and in concerts almost until his death.

Smoothness, sweetness and fluency were the outstanding marks of Gigli’s singing. His style was essentially popular, both in its virtues and its limitations: natural, vital and spontaneous on the one hand, but always liable to faults of taste – to a sentimental style of portamento, for instance, or the breaking of the line by sobs, or ostentatious bids for stage applause ‘like a picturesque beggar appealing for alms’ (Ernest Newman). He missed refinement in Mozart, and was unequal to the technical demands of ‘Il mio tesoro’; in Verdi he was more at home, although notably happier when, as in the second scene of Un ballo in maschera or the last act of Rigoletto, his grandees had adopted popular disguise; best of all in Puccini and the melodramatic lyricism of Andrea Chénier and La Gioconda. His mellifluous cantilena in such pieces as Nadir’s romance in Les pêcheurs de perles was consummately beautiful. Gigli was something less than a great artist; but as a singer pure and simple he was among the greatest.

His many recordings offer a complete portrait of his long career; outstandingly successful are the arias from Mefistofele, Martha, L’elisir d’amore, La Gioconda and Faust, duets with De Luca from La forza del destino and Les pêcheurs de perles, and the complete recordings of Andrea Chénier and La Bohème. Gigli was also a seductively charming interpreter of Neapolitan and popular songs, and delighted 1930s cinema audiences with his portrayals of ingenuous and lovestruck tenors.

From the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians


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February’s Singer of the Month: Renata Tebaldi

The glorious one with the voice of an angel:  Renata Tebaldi

One of the most beautiful Italian voices ever to grace the stage, Renata Tebaldi was born in Pesaro on February 1, 1922.  In memory of Madama Tebaldi’s birthday, having fallen just a few days ago, I decided to implement a new section to this blog called, “Singer of the Month.”  It is only appropriate, knowing my devotion to the old-school and to Italianante singing, that Renata Tebaldi be the first singer featured in this new section.  Every month, I will select a singer or artist of the past or present who has contributed their talents to the field of opera, in one way or another.

Tebaldi was one of those voices that is unforgettable.  Madama’s voice was liquid, lush, filled with vibrancy, with a burnished middle voice, a magnificent upper range, and the power of a hundred chariots.  Her charisma and musicianship combined with her God-given gift, not only made her famous in her day, she remains a true example for any young singer who wants to understand what the “real deal” is.

She studied at the Conservatorio di Musica Arrigo Boito, in Parma with Carmen Mellis and made her debut in 1944 in Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele” as Elena. In 1946, when La Scala reopened, she partook in that concert under Toscanini’s baton and subsequently sang Mimi and Eva in the 1946-47 season. From 1949-1954, she sang regularly at La Scala in roles such as:  Maddalena in Andrea Chenier, Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur, Desdemona in Otello, and La Wally.  She soon made debuts in London and in San Francisco as Aida.  In 1955, she became a prima at the Metropolitan Opera, where she remained for 20 years.

Tebaldi’s voice was capable of nearly anything.  Not only did she perform the “lirico spinto” repertoire, she also delved into such roles as Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Spontini’s Olympia, and Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco, showing a tremendous versatility and range.  Her Forza del Destino is the stuff of legend and I, of course, have a personal devotion to her understanding of Puccini’s repertoire, most specifically Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, and Mimi in La Boheme; not to mention Angelica in Suor Angelica.

If you’ve never watched or seen, or heard her, for that matter, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!? Her elegance, her mannerisms–a true lady–the way in which she used her hands, the beauty of her persona were all aspects that made La Tebaldi what she was, an artist of true value. Her voice lingers in one’s mind and heart, and her’s is a historical lexicon of recordings that we as operagoers, historians, and afficionados must make sure to preserve and introduce to those too young to have known about her.  On this anniversary of her birth, on behalf of all who loved her and continue to, “Madama, we remember…we can never forget and we fight that your legacy continue, that your art, as you saw it and understood it so intimately, be preserved as it were, now and always.  In grand devotion, we thank you.  Grazie mille, Brava!”

Elegance personified: a true diva, private, respectful of her art, and authentic