Beniamino Gigli's career spanned several significant eras—historically and acoustically. This section includes articles about his life, artistry, and recording career.
Barry R. Ashpole and Colin Bain
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Compiled by David Cutler (Updated June 2021) Click below for access.
Gigli's commercial records have mostly been issued through the years by EMI (now Warner), and latterly, Naxos. The Naxos series covers Gigli’s recording career from 1918 to 1951. Many formerly unpublished recordings from the 1950s were later released on four CDs by Testament records. These include recordings originally made on tape as well as several tracks recorded in stereo. Gigli was one of the very few artists in the earlier part of the 20th century to record from the acoustic method to stereo. However, like other singers, Gigli virtually doubled the number of recordings available through the release of live recordings.
The first so-called “pirate” to release live operatic recordings was Edward J. Smith (EJS) who, between 1956 and 1981, published thousands of live recordings eagerly awaited by opera fans and lovers of historical singers. There were many broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera house. These included Simon Boccanegra with Lawrence Tibbett, Elizabeth Rethberg, Ezio Pinza, and Giovanni Martinelli. Other singers that appeared on his lists were Jussi Björling, Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstad, Alexander Kipnis and Salvatore Baccaloni, and a whole host of Met opera stars. The EJS material also originated from Europe with, for example, a magnificent recording of Don Giovanni from Salzburg also starring Pinza and Rethberg and quite a bit of the 1939 season from Covent Garden which includes two Gigli performances of La traviata and Aïda.
This enables us to hear the great tenor in quite a few recordings stretching back from 1932 to the end of this career that were not available commercially. Added to those recordings are various film soundtracks. Gigli appeared in some fifteen films, all of which produced at least one gem on the soundtrack. For example, the film Mamma not only produced the popular song of the same name, but also some of Gigli’s best singing ever, in a role that he would never attempt on stage, Verdi’s Otello.
The discography provided here is divided into three parts.
Part 1 comprises performances from the stage, concert hall or any other venue where Gigli was accompanied by piano or orchestra.
Part 2 comprises performances from film. From 1935 to around 1952, Gigli was seen and heard in approximately twenty films. His last appearance was in Taxi di Notte (1950). These films often produced musical rarities that do not appear elsewhere in his discography, e.g., excerpts from Verdi’s Otello from the film Mamma. In the film Vertigine, he even attempts the Spring song from act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Italy’s film archive also provides some examples of short films where Gigli turns up in either a song or an aria from an opera.
In the late 1920s, Gigli took advantage of the earliest sound films. "Vitaphones" were made from around 1926, initially by Warner Brothers. They were short films which showcased a particular artist. Both Gigli and Giovanni Martinelli starred in several operatic shorts.
Part 3 consists of documentary comments and short interviews from the second half of Gigli’s career. These tend to occur at the end of concerts or even during the interval. There is an important lezione di canto from March 1955, right at the end of his career, in which he explains his method of singing.
World War II restricted Gigli’s artistic achievements somewhat to the axis countries. Post-war, however, despite his advancing years, Gigli still carried out a reasonably full schedule of operatic performances as well as concerts, many of which were broadcast. In 1948, Gigli made a highly successful commercial recording of “Ed anche Beppe amo” from L’amico Fritz. Just three years later, a performance was caught from the San Carlo opera house, Naples. Another opera never recorded commercially by Gigli was L’elisir d’amore from early 1953. This was the last complete live opera broadcast Gigli took part in. During the last three years of his career, complete opera performances became rare and he sang mostly in concert, including a long round of farewell concerts. Finally, two songs were recorded for the BBC for broadcast over Christmas 1955 after he officially retired. Some or all of these later concerts were recorded and have been issued on disc.
My huge thanks to Mark Ricaldone, without whose tireless efforts much of the information presented here would not be accessible. I would also like to thank William Collins, who compiled a first version of Gigli’s non-commercial output in 1990 for the Record Collector journal. Finally, I would also like to thank William Shaman, William Collins, and Calvin M. Goodwin for the huge amount of work that went into their two invaluable volumes of ‘EJS: Discography of the Edward J. Smith Recordings.’
Photo: Gigli in post-war London, 1946
David Cutler managed the Archive at Reuters News until 2021. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he qualified in Information Science and started his career in London’s Imperial War Museum. In 1980, he joined the BBC as a researcher and seven years later joined Reuters, running the Editorial Reference Unit, which supplied research and copy for editors and journalists around the world. An amateur tenor, David studied singing with the Polish bass, Marian Nowakowski, who was himself a pupil of Adamo Didur. David has sung in concert in Dublin, London and Perugia. He reviews new releases of classical music for the U.S. publication Fanfare.