HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BENIAMINO GIGLI!
Imagine that on the very same day in 1890 were born the greatest Italian tenor of his time and the greatest Wagnerian tenor of his time! (Yes, Lauritz Melchior was also born on March 20, 1890.)
March 20, 1944, saw a spectacular eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, during the Second World War. Norman Lewis, a Field Security sergeant for the British army, describes it for us in Naples ’44: A World War II Diary Of Occupied Italy.
At the time of my arrival [March 22] the lava was pushing its way very quietly down the main street, and about fifty yards from the edge of this great, slowly-shifting slagheap, a crowd of several hundred people, mostly in black, knelt in prayer. Holy banners and church images were held aloft, and acolytes swung censers and sprinkled holy water in the direction of the cinders. Occasionally a grief-crazed citizen would grab one of the banners and dash towards the wall of lava, shaking it angrily as if to warn off the malignant spirits of the eruption. The spectacle of the eruption was totally unexpected. I had been prepared for rivers of fire, but there was no fire and no burning anywhere – only the slow, deliberate suffocation of the town under millions of tons of clinkers. The lava was moving at a rate of only a few yards an hour, and it had covered half the town to a depth of perhaps thirty feet. A complete, undamaged cupola of a church, severed from the submerged building, jogged slowly towards us on its bed of cinders. The whole process was strangely quiet. The black slagheap shook, trembled and jerked a little and cinders rattled down its slope. A house cautiously encircled and then overwhelmed, disappeared from sight intact, and a faint, distant grinding sound followed as the lava began its digestion. As I watched, a tall building housing what was clearly the town’s smart café took the pressure of the lava’s movement. For perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes it resisted, then the juddering, trembling spasm of the lava seemed to pass into its fabric, and it, too, began to tremble, before its walls bulged and it went down.And now, an eruption of beauty. Beniamino Gigli sings "Donna non vidi mai" from Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut (recorded in 1926).
Dominant in every way, for sheer size, and the number of persons supporting the platform of the images confronting the eruption, was that of San Sebastiano himself[.]
|Donna non vidi mai, simile a questa!
A dirle: “Io t’amo,”
a nuova vita l’alma mia si desta.
“Manon Lescaut mi chiamo!”
Come queste parole profumate
mi vagan nello spirto
e ascose fibre vanno a carezzare.
O sussurro gentil,
deh! non cessare!
|A woman like this I have never seen!|
Saying to her, "I love you,"
my soul awakens to a new life.
"My name is Manon Lescaut!"
How these fragrant words
wander in my soul
and caress hidden fibers.
O kind whisper,
ah, do not cease!