Monday, February 23, 2009

Notes on a Talk On Beniamino Gigli

Gigli had a specially beautiful tenor voice, but not much in the way of brains or character.

Nigel Douglas, a singer-critic, said: “It is the archetypal glorious Italian sound; there is a sweetness to it, a glowing, soft-grained caressing quality which quite simply seduces the ear, and which never hardens or coarsens when the voice comes under dramatic pressure…. There is a liquid quality which I always think of as the essence of Gigli’s singing.”

Like most tenors he was short and plump—-and embarrassed about it. Puccini turned him down for the tenor’s role in the premiere of La Rondine, because he was unhandsome, and critics sometimes roasted him—-“a well-fed Andrea Chenier,” one called him. But there’s no denying that sweet beguiling voice.

As fine a singer as he was, one critic said he “lacked the essential fire and passion of the great Italian tenors”—-think about that when you listen to Alessandro Bonci, another great tenor.
Another critic wrote that in Tosca, Gigli had a way of making his listeners "all too conscious he was Mr Gigli, the celebrated Italian tenor and not Mario Cavaradossi."
Another referred to his “sobbing tricks.” Still another said that “at the end of his long and wonderful career he was capable of introducing a spontaneous gush of vulgarity into any otherwise flawless piece of vocalization.”

He wrote a book—-or at least his name is on it (The Memoirs of…). But it is a smooth job from beginning to end, and obviously was ghost-written—-Gigli spoke poor English.
The beginning is nice: “I was born with a voice and very little else: no money, no influence, no other talents. Had it not been for the peculiar formation of my vocal cords, I should probably at this moment be planing tables or sewing trousers, or mending shoes as my father did, in the little town of Recanati, where I was born on March 20th, 1890. But God gave me a voice, and that changed everything. I was good at singing, and nothing else.”

He was no paragon of righteousness.
Every day for 2 years Signorra Boccuci gave him singing lessons—-free-—and then he signed up with another teacher, agreeing to PAY that teacher. The former unpaid teacher sued--the judge ordered Gigli to pay her a large sum of money. But Gigli notes that she didn’t press for payment—-“she only wanted to make a gesture, and I heard no more of the matter.”
Typically an opera house had a rule against encores but Gigli always arrogantly broke it (even at the Met) with the same weak excuse-—“it seemed the only way of calming down the audience.”

Maria Jeritza, a gorgeous blonde soprano, was temperamental, the terror of tenors, and Gigli despised her. During the premiere of Fedora, she pushed him so hard he had to brace himself against a wing support; in the next performance, she wiggled so much that he staggered—and the audience laughed. Once, when his top hat fell to the floor, she kicked it across the stage.
In a later performance he -–perhaps accidentally--almost pushed Jeritza into the orchestra pit. She wound up with abrasions on both legs. Afterwards she said, pointing to him,
“He did it! He wanted to kill me! Murderer!”

She vowed never to sing with Gigli again. bBut 2 weeks later she was to sing with him in Tosca. They did sing together—but she was mad at his taking a curtain call. And when she herself finally did, she said, tearfully—a memorable line--"Gigli not nice to me!"
They never sang together again.

In 1932, during rhe Depression, the Met asked everyone to take a 10% salary cut--
Everyone agreed--except Gigli.
Some 32 artists signed a letter demanding his removal, including Serafin, Ponselle, de Luca, Pinza, Melchior, Bori, Rethberg. His conduct, he admits in his book, was “inexcusable… my critics were to some extent justified.” ut “I found it intolerable …that my contribution should be demanded as a right, decided for me in advance.”
Of course, when people say it’s not the money it’s the principle of the thing... it’s the money.

He gave concerts for charities, but had an ostentacious estate built in his home town—-on 7,000 acres--with 60 rooms, 23 bathrooms, a swimming pool, roman bath, aqueduct, a refrigerator in the kitchen that could hold enough food for 20 people for a year. His book contains photos, even one of his bedroom!

Gigli was very pro-Italy, even during WW2, and rebuked Toscanini for leaving Italy: “his political sympathies were alien to me, and I could never understand the way in which he allowed them to rule his life. To me Italy was Italy, no matter what the regime.”

Gigli was a compulsive name-dropper:
In his book there are repeated boastful mentions of meeting Mussolini, Goering, Hitler. Hitler, he notes, gave him an autographed photograph; again: “afterwards Hitler shook my hand and told me he liked Italian music very much.” Again: “Hitler came to my benefit concert…and afterward gave me a signed photograph of himself.” Again: In munich, in a performance of Aida, “Hitler applauded tirelessly.”

The book came out in 1957, as I recall.

After the war, threatening crowds besieged Gigli’s house in Rome and for months he didn’t dare leave it.

He had a wonderful voice but a limited intellect. He once said the US would have a civil war because of the powerful unions, which he said, were in the hands of Jews. Richard Crooks, another tenor at the Met, said Gigli should have learned to use his mouth only for singing. (Crooks was not only a thoroughly decent guy and a fine singer, but he was born in Trenton and grew up in NJ!)

Gigli had husbanded his voice, and sang well into his 60s.
“It was due to the care with which I always chose my repertory (for example, I invariably refused Otello) that I was able to single in public for 41 years.”

He gave a farewell tour in the US, he joked, so he could once again hear himself introduced as Mr. Giggly.

I sometimes feel that God tries to be fair. If He gives someone a wonderful singing voice, He also gives that person balancing handicaps. In the case of certain singers, like Jarmila Novotna, God clearly erred for He gave her beauty as well as a lovely voice and a winning personality. But in the case of Gigli, God may have erred on the side of giving him offsetting handicaps.


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