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Beniamino Gigli, lyric tenor from the early 20th century

By April 11, 2018March 16th, 2023No Comments

Gigli was a marvelous lyric tenor.  He was sometimes accused of being overly sentimental, and you may hear some of that when he is singing, but I don’t mind it.  The sound production was so beautiful.  There is no forcing the air through the muscles of the throat, which is mostly what we get today in both men and women.  There is beautiful, beautiful phrasing and wonderful use of color in the voice, down to the level of vowels changing color.  I know that I say this about everyone I post, but he is one of my favorite tenors.  But, don’t worry.  I have more.  One more thing that I should mention about Gigli.  He was known for his use of messa di voce, which is something like singing mezzoforte and at the same time it’s not.  The voice softens, doesn’t squeeze (in the throat or use any muscles in the tongue) and still projects.  It is a lost art today.

Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Serse, also known as Handel’s Largo

Ombra mai fu
Di vegetabile,
Cara ed amabile
Soave più

Never was a shade
of any plant
dearer and more lovely
or more sweet

Il lamento di Federico

È la solita storia del pastore…
Il povero ragazzo volvea raccontarla,
e s’addormi.
C’è nel sonno l’oblio,
Come l’invidio!
Anch’io vorrei dormir così
nel sonno almeno l’oblio trovar!
La pace sol cercando io vò:
vorrei poter tutto scordar.
Ma ogni sforzo è vanno..
Davanti ho sempre di lei
il dolce sembiante!
La pace tolta è sempre a me…
Perché degg’io tanto penar?
Lei!… sempre mi parla al cor!
Fatale vision, mi lascia!
mi fai tanto male! Ahimè!

Federico’s Lament

It’s the usual story of the shepherd…
The poor boy wanted to tell it,
but fell asleep.
There is oblivion in sleep..
How I envy him!
I too would like to sleep like this –
within sleep to find oblivion!
I only want to find peace:
If only I could forget everything.
But all struggles are in vain.
I still see before me
her sweet visage..
Peace is always taken from me.
Why must I suffer so much pain?
She!.. How she always spoke to my heart!
Fatal vision, leave me!
You hurt me so much! Oh, woe is me!

Che gelida manina

Che gelida manina,
se la lasci riscaldar.
Cercar che giova?

Al buio non si trova.

Ma per fortuna
é una notte di luna,
e qui la luna
l’abbiamo vicina.
Aspetti, signorina,
le dirò con due parole
chi son, e che faccio,
come vivo.

Chi son? Sono un poeta.
Che cosa faccio? Scrivo.
E come vivo? Vivo.
In povertà mia lieta
scialo da gran signore
rime ed inni damore.
Per sogni e per chimere
e per castelli in aria,
l’anima ho milionaria.
Talor dal mio forziere
ruban tutti i gioelli
due ladri, gli occhi belli.
Ventrar con voi pur ora,
ed i miei sogni usati
e i bei sogni miei,
tosto si dileguar!

What a frozen little hand,

What a frozen little hand,
let me warm it for you.
What’s the use of looking?

We won’t find it in the dark.

But luckily
it’s a moonlit night,
and the moon
is near us here.
Wait, miss,
I will tell you in two words,
who I am, what I do,
and how I live.

May I?
Who am I? I am a poet.
What do I do? I write.
And how do I live? I live.
In my carefree poverty
I squander rhymes
and love songs like a lord.
When it comes to dreams and visions
and castles in the air,
I’ve the soul of a millionaire.
From time to time two thieves
steal all the jewels
out of my safe, two pretty eyes.
They came in with you just now,
and my customary dreams
my lovely dreams,
melted at once into thin air!

Beniamino Gigli

Beniamino Gigli (March 20, 1890 –November 30, 1957) was an Italian opera singer. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest tenors of his generation.


Gigli was born in Recanati, in the Marche, the son of a shoemaker who loved opera. His parents did not, however, view music as a secure career.  Beniamino’s brother Lorenzo became a famous Italian painter.

Gigli began his singing career as a child, performing for treats and coins at a local café. At age 7, he entered the choir of Recanati Cathedral, where his father was Sacristan. When he was 17, he moved to Rome to live with his brother, a student of sculpture; the two led a bohemian existence, frequently cold and hungry, until Gigli was offered a position as a servant in a wealthy household. There he was provided with room and board and given afternoons off to practice or to take lessons with a local teacher, Agnese Bonucci, who offered to teach him at no cost. His other teachers were Cotogni and Enrico Rosati.

Gigli became the foremost Italian tenor of the 1920s through the 1940s, possessed of a smooth, lush voice with a lyric sweetness often described as “honeyed.” He became a Metropolitan Opera star, singing 28 roles there, and was a legitimate heir to the tenor Enrico Caruso, who had died at the beginning of the 1920s. No one person could fill Caruso’s shoes, but it was widely conceded that Gigli inherited his lyrical and romantic parts, while Giovanni Martinelli took over the more heroic roles. Gigli was also one of the most-beloved performers of Italian song, with a special gift for the traditional Neapolitan repertoire. His singing was heavily mannered by modern standards, characterized by sobs, catches, and portamenti, but it had an inherent beauty and sincerity that are still easy to appreciate. Although an even more stylized actor than singer, Gigli had a successful film career, appearing in almost 20 films.

During World War I, a music-loving colonel saw to it that he was posted to a non-combat position in Rome and also encouraged him to audition at the famous Academia di Santa Cecilia, where his evident musical talent led them to waive the normally required piano examination. He studied there for two years, and upon graduation won the famous Parma vocal competition. On the strength of that, he was offered roles at various small opera houses and made his official opera debut as Enzo in La Gioconda at Rovigo in the fall of 1914. By December 1916, he made his Rome Opera debut as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele. When the war was over, the recording company HMV set up a studio in Milan, and it was there that Gigli began his extensive recording career. In 1918, he made his La Scala debut also as Boito’s Faust in a performance conducted by Toscanini. The next year, he made his first appearance in the Americas as Cavaradossi in Tosca at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. His Met debut followed in November 1920, also as Faust, and he sang there every season until 1932.  Two other great Italian tenors present on the roster of Met singers during the 1920s also happened to be Gigli’s chief contemporary rivals for tenor supremacy in the Italian repertory—namely, Giovanni Martinelli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.

Gigli in the 1920s

Gigli rose to true international prominence after the death of the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso in 1921. Such was his popularity with audiences he was often called “Caruso Secondo”, though he much preferred to be known as “Gigli Primo.” In fact, the comparison was not valid as Caruso had a bigger, darker, more heroic voice than Gigli’s sizable yet lyric instrument.

Smoothness, sweetness and fluency were the outstanding marks of Beniamino Gigli’s singing. Gigli left the Met in 1932, ostensibly after refusing to take a pay cut. After leaving the Met, Gigli returned again to Italy, and sang in houses there, elsewhere in Europe, and in South America. He was criticized for being a favorite singer of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, having recorded the Fascist anthem “Giovinezza” in 1937. Toward the end of World War II, he was able to give few performances. However, he immediately returned to the stage when the war ended in 1945, and the audience acclaim was greater and more clamorous than ever.

In the last few years of his life, Gigli gave concert performances more often than he appeared on stage. Before his retirement in 1955, Gigli undertook an exhausting world tour of farewell concerts. This impaired his health in the two years that remained to him, during which time he helped prepare his memoirs. Gigli died in Rome in 1957.


Many of Gigli’s recordings, including complete operas with Maria Caniglia, Rina Gigli, Licia Albanese and Toti dal Monte, have been reissued on CD. Gigli recordings date back to the 1920s.

Gigli was one of the first singers to make complete opera recordings, including a particularly fine Andrea Chénier (EMI) and Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci released as a set on Nimbus. Among his solo CDs, a two-disc set on Pearl (Gemm) captures him in his youthful prime.