Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)

Che gelida manina
La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini

GigliGigli began singing at the age of seven at Recanati Cathedral, where his father was sacristan. After lessons with Agnese Bonucci, he won a scholarship in Rome and studied with Cotogni and Rosati. He won an international competition at Parma in 1914, and later that year made a successful debut in La Gioconda at Rovigo. For the next few years he sang in Italy and Spain, climaxing his early career in the memorial performance of Mefistofele at La Scala in 1918. Gigli sang in South America in 1919-20, then made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the fall of 1920, again in Mefistofele. He continued as principal tenor at the Met until 1932, when he (along with several other Italians) left due to substantial pay cuts necessitated by the Depression. He then concentrated on his European career, performing in Italy (he was a favorite of Mussolini) and, after the War, in England, where he remained popular until his retirement in 1956.

In lyrical and romantic repertory, Gigli was regarded as the legitimate heir of Caruso (Martinelli excelled in the more dramatic and heroic parts).

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 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.

— Desmond Shawe-Taylor

Play Button