Ettore Bastianini: Biography

by Charles A Hooey

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To begin, let us indulge in a moment of fantasy. If it was feasible to link every word of praise ever uttered, thought or spoken about this singer, how far would the strand of intelligence go in encircling the globe? Of course, I’d have to say, “All the way!” The point simply is to send a clear message that this was a very special singer.

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A complex fellow, Ettore Bastianini was blessed by the Good Lord with the most glorious baritone voice, but sadly, he was also destined for an early, ugly death. He found expression in Verdi and in certain bel canto and verismo works, with the most supreme singers of post World War II. One of these, Dame Joan Sutherland, remembered “How splendid the voice was and what a big personality he was on stage.”

He was born in Siena in the heart of Italy’s Tuscany region on 24 September 1922. His father he never knew, and this absence would haunt him, draw him close to his mother and give rise to key personality flaws. As a child, he was a lively urchin, a scamp, but a well-scrubbed cherub on Sundays. School proved a struggle, so once he had completed his elementary grades, his grandmother and mother entreated Gaetano Vanni, a neighbour who owned a baker’s shop, to take the problem youth under his wing. A part-time tenor, Vanni in time spotted the boy’s enormous vocal potential.

Like most Italian youngsters, he was crazy about futbol, but that was a costly passion for a choir-boy earning but a single lira per week. At sixteen, he was elevated to the grande stipendio of five lira which simply generated more games. Tennis followed and cycling, Ettore excelling in each; he had to win at every sport, succeed at every task.

He was seventeen in 1939 when Vanni sent him to study with Fathima Ammannati Vannoni, who, with her husband, were deemed about the best singing teacher tandem in Siena. They liked his dark sound and set about to create an operatic bass. But it was a poor time for career planning, as on 22 May Italy had signed the Pact of Steel, aligning herself with Germany. Ettore continued to study and give concerts until June 1940, when war erupted. He carried on through the influence of Count Guido Chigi Saracini, founder of the famous singing academy, but late in 1941, he entered the hated fascist Milizia, explaining, “I signed up first of all to eat and secondly so as not to run the risk of finishing up in Germany.” Indeed, he stayed briefly. A transfer switched him to the Air Force and, as an aircraft mechanic, he served in Sardinia, Sicily and North Africa.

In 1944, while stationed in Forli, he met a vivacious blonde soprano from the Romagna, known as “Diva,” and fell madly in love. He could only dream of Diva and feel homesick for Siena and Mamma. His mother demonstrated her pride and wish to support him by tending to his laundry needs.

Diva was only a few days short of nineteen when she had given birth to Iago on 5 January 1945. Immature as parents, they argued constantly, made up, but never married, leaving Iago to be raised by his mother. Ettore would be singing somewhere when Diva would call about his son’s latest misdeed. He would race back to Siena, berate the lad, embrace him, and leave. The young man, who would reject his burdensome name to become Marco, adored his father and inherited his love of fast horses and cars. On 9 September 1981, he stood admiring his new but poorly-parked van, when it ran him down and killed him. He left a son, also named Ettore.

In July 1945, with peace restored, he resumed his academic life in Florence at the Comunale with Maestro Flaminio Conti and his wife, soprano Dina Mannucci Contina. Now an accredited singer, Ettore gave concerts while he prepared for his debut on 16 November 1945 in Ravenna as Colline in La Bohème. That accomplished, he joined a band of merry opera folk who were on their way to Egypt. First in Cairo, then in Alexandria in January 1947, he sang bass roles in support of Dina Mannucci’s Gilda, Rosina and Lucia. The following year he stayed in Italy to work on his fan base in eighteen cities. To reach his venues, he was able to indulge in his craze for fast cars, first a Topolino, then a dark green Fiat sports car, and ultimately a Porsche.

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Spain first attracted him in 1948. He sang in Barcelona as a bass in Il Tabarro, Gianni Schicchi and Respighi’s La Fiamma and came back in 1949 for I Puritani. But he did not return until 1956, now a baritone, to sing in Il Trovatore in the northern city of Balbao. The place must have caught his fancy, as he made haste to return every September until 1958. Alfredo Kraus, Duke to his Rigoletto, saw that “Bastianini enjoyed a huge popularity, one could say almost as big as a tenor’s!” He must have enjoyed the drive too, as northern Spain’s roads provided plenty of adventure in those days.

Asked back to Egypt in 1948, Ettore declined, but he did return in 1949. but left afterwards for his first ocean crossing to Caracas, Venezuela and a four-opera stint. In both 1951 and 1952, he sang again in Egypt. One day Gino Bechi leaned over and whispered, “You’re really a baritone, you know. I’m a fool to say so as I don’t need more competition, but it’s true.” As a bass, he possessed a delightful timbre, but it was limited in volume and in the bass register soft and weak; he had trouble reaching the lowest notes, and, in Rigoletto, relied on choristers to supply the last “Fa” in Sparafucile’s aria.

One day while he was rehearsing Padre Guardiano in La Forza del Destino with his coach, Luciano Bettarini, he continued on with “Tu mi condanni a viverere” – the tenor’s lines! “The music was so beautiful that I went right on singing. I could not help it.” Astonished to hear him cope so easily with the high range, Bettarini blurted out, “I don’t think you are a bass at all.”

But could he really forsake eleven years as a bass! Almost impossible many said. But it is a measure of the man’s sense of determination that he could and did change to a baritone. From then on, he studied with Bettarini with great resolve and punctilious application. Five months later on 17 January 1952, he presented himself in Siena as Germont in La Traviata with his friends, the Continis in support, the maestro on the podium and Signora Dina as Violetta. For the festivities, Ettore added two encores, arias from Andrea Chenier and Il Trovatore. However, he still lacked brilliance not yet having stabilized the high notes that later would become a strength. After six more months of study, he approached his second crucial debut in Rigoletto in Siena on 19 July. During the Act II duet an error by the soprano caused him to lose his way and stop momentarily. Afterwards the debate raged. Was his switch to baritone an error? Was he finished? But he truly was in the move and that autumn came to an important occasion, a Traviata in Bologna with Virginia Zeani.

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It would be Russian opera, though, that would open mighty doors. Although his part was modest, the performance, that would mark a definite turning-point in his career, was Tschaikovsky’s La Dame di Picche (The Queen of Spades) in December of that year at the Teatro Comunale in Florence. Organizers conductor Artur Rodzinski and daughter Tatiana Pavlova, when they heard the dark, rich tones of the young Tuscan, knew they had found their Prince Yeletsky. Bastianini the baritone was born.

Now sporting the right tools, he set out to build a career. Handsome, athletic, possessor of a golden voice and soon to be famous and rich, he attracted hordes of dazed females, but for the most part he resisted their appeal. He loved to motor between venues in his Topolino, then in a dark green Fiat sports car, scurrying across Europe, doubtless enjoying this chance to see his country inside and out.

He had transformed himself from a run-of-the-mill bass to a baritone with world-class potential. A month later, another factor came into play in the person of Maria Callas, then emerging in her own right. She came to Florence to sing in Lucia di Lammermoor on 25 January 1953 with Ettore and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (later di Stefano) as Edgardo. Lusty folks, they easily filled the cavernous Comunale. With and without Maria, Ettore would scale the heights. Already he could muster a chilling Michele in Il Tabarro for NDR Hamburg radio and sing Figaro in Paisiello’s Barbiere di Siviglia in Florence’s sedate Piccola Teatro di Musica on 25 March.

Three weeks later, he vaulted ahead in time in Genoa to portray Olivier in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. But Florence was dangling another Prince, ‘Andrei’ in Prokofiev’s Guerra e Pace. Its first staging outside of Russia took place on 26 May. At this time and place, the four hour epic failed to convince, but Ettore infused his romantic scenes with beauty, and, with Corelli, drew high praise for being so life-like.

Athletic and handsome, possessor of a golden voice, with prospects of fame and riches, he would attract hordes of starry-eyed females wherever he went. His main interest remained his singing and the open road that carried him to each venue. Typically, to reach Augsburg in Germany that August to sing Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino, he drove from Florence across the Alps at St. Gothard Pass and arrived three days later. He proceeded to Trieste for Les Pecheurs de Perles, Turin for Andrea Chenier, and Perugia for La Passione di Cristo by Lorenzo Perosi.

His rapid success prompted Rudolf Byng, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York to ask his ‘man in Europe’ Roberto Bauer, to arrange Bastianini’s great leap across the Atlantic. Trim from cycling, Bastianini arrived eager to sing and to enjoy American westerns and Marilyn Monroe films. At his debut on 5 December 1953, his singing in Act II of Traviata with Licia Albanese caused a near riot. Irving Kolodin observed, “Little was known of him when he arrived. The dusky richness of his sound qualified him as a companion for Albanese and Tucker, though it was clear that he was inclined to overplay his voice and underplay his role.” Andrea Chénier on 22 December “even improved with the Gerard of Bastianini, one of his best roles. The voice remained a source of aural pleasure as Di Luna on 25 December and as Enrico on 13 January with Lily Pons and Jan Peerce. The only question mark about the Bastianini career related to the performer himself – what he had to work with was unquestionably superior.” It was a worthy beginning.  

Returning to Italy, he tackled Atanaele in Thais in Trieste, before a rendez-vous with Callas in Lucia di Lammermoor at Teatro Fenice in Venice on 13 February. Then it was across the boot to Genoa for La Forza del Destino on 20 March and a week later Amahl and the Night Visitors as Melchior.

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Singing on the stage of La Scala in Milan must surely be the dream of every aspiring opera singer. Ettore had had a “look-in” the small bass role of Tiresia when Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex received its première on 14 April 1948. Rejecting understudy roles thrust at him, he made his ‘real La Scala debut’ on 10 May 1954 as Onegin in Tschaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with Tebaldi and Di Stefano. In the audience Nicola Rossi-Lemeni was impressed “to hear Ettore’s voice, right from his very first phrases, was magic… the quality of sound, the timbre, the velvet quality of the accents!” Three weeks later, back in Florence, he sang in Tschaikovsky’s Mazeppa. It was a leap from the late romantic, even decadent, personality of Onegin to Mazeppa, but Ettore traversed it in fine style. During the summer, he toured with the Carro di Tespi as Rigoletto, stopping in Perugia, L’Aquila and Macerata. He also sang Amonasro in Aida, his first recording.

Ettore must have loved the open-air festivals as he began early and stayed with them as long as he could. An early outing was a Rigoletto at the Chiciano Terme in Sicily in July 1954. A month later, he tackled the jester at the other baths, the famed Terme di Caracalla, at that time the Rome Opera’s summer retreat since 1937, One of the most impressive sights in Italy was the vast ruins and the glorious surrounding gardens illuminated for opera.

That autumn he re-visited the Metropolitan Opera to reprise earlier roles and on 28 January 1955 to add his Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, in Don Carlos. He was also featured in a Gala Performance on 2 April, which gave Act II of Die Fledermaus, in which he was a surprise guest with De Los Angeles, Güden and George London. His stay included the annual Spring Tour, notable for an unforgettable Andrea Chénier in Dallas with Zinka Milanov and Richard Tucker and for his Marcello in La Bohème in Houston on 10 May.

With only a short break, he arrived in Milan for a brief series of La Traviatas conceived by Luchino Visconti. On 28 May, the sparking new production with Maria Callas as Violetta, Di Stefano as Alfredo, and Ettore as Germont resulted in tumultuous and lengthy applause. Afterwards, he rushed to Rome to repeat the role with Virginia Zeani and Giacinto Prandelli on 10 & 11 June. Then in early July he paused in Tripani to give three performances of Don Carlos with Adriana Guerrini and Carlo Bergonzi.

His autumn programme began with more Russian Opera at Perugia’s Sacred Festival, where he filled a small role Il Convito di Pietro (The Stone Guest) by Dargomizhsky, where the composer used thematic fragments to achieve an awe-inspiring build-up of dramatic tension in Act II and ultimately an extraordinary finale. As Don Carlos, Laura’s second suitor, Ettore was dispatched by Mirto Picchi, a sinister tenor Don Juan.

Sunny Mexico beckoned in October 1955 and so in Monterrey, the industrial giant of the north, he sang Gerard in Chénier and Bohème. Returning in 1956, he sang La Favorita, Pagliacci and Lucia, and incidentally, met a lively ballerina who helped brighten his nights. Raffaele Arié noticed his voice thinning and chided him, half jokingly. “…for a girl like that it’s worth losing your voice,” he sighed.

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Ettore’s first appearance in New York had tweaked many a feminine heart, a fact that was duly noted by Carol Fox, manager of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She was about to give her first full season and had signed Callas and baritones Gobbi and Guelfi, but now she determined to have Bastianini partner La Callas on opening night in Bellini’s I Puritani. Rushing from Monterrey, he arrived just in time. Bastianini’s fine “singing of `Bel sogno beato di pace’ started the audience off on its first enthusiastic display of approbation.” (Stewart Manville in Opera). Bastianini also sang Di Luna in Il Trovatore on 5 November, an event that assumed legendary status as the only time Callas and Jussi Bjoerling sang together. Rumours of a private tape still persist. Ettore would sing Di Luna with Bjoerling again in Chicago in 1956 and 1958.

Immediately thereafter, he swept into New York to excel “as Amonasro, both as baritone and king”, as reported by Miles Kastendieck in Opera. Next in Florence he sang in Il Tabarro, “staying the morose, jealous husband (who) displayed not only a marvelous vocal colour, but underlined magnificently the dark musical characterization Puccini gives this part.” He also sang Barnaba in La Gioconda on 7 January 1956, with a “virile, striking stage sense and a firm baritone voice of magnificent timbre.” (Reginald Smith Brindle in Opera March 1956)

La Scala’s performances of Traviata had proven a huge hit but were far too few, so Ettore and Maria returned with Gianni Raimondi on 19 January to begin a re-run of eight. As most were given in April, Ettore was able to spend February at the Metropolitan Opera singing La Bohème and Rigoletto and in an Italian Gala, his aria being “Cortigiani” from Rigoletto. Bastianini’s rich and unique timbre now literally swept a listener’s breath away.

Like a yoyo, he spun back and forth. On 12 April he sang at La Scala with his first Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera, but it displeased Claudio Sartori in Opera “Bastianini lacked dramatic temperament. His tranquil impersonation seemed better suited to eighteenth-century opera.” It was criticism the baritone would take to heart. However, he would become a truly great Renato, better than during this formative outing.

In May and June 1956, he was in Florence singing a series of La Traviata performances and then Don Carlos, the latter earning him an approbation from RSB in Opera: “Ettore Bastianini as Rodrigo gave yet another proof of his intelligence and musicianship.”

On his return to Chicago in October, his grey-wigged Germont struck Howard Talley in Opera as “stilted in action, (and he) did not respond to the emotional situation in the second act with the sympathy and tenderness it demands. He emphasized the unfortunate sing-song rhythm of `Di Provenza il mar’ more than was necessary.” Things improved in Forza with Tebaldi and Tucker: “all the principals sang with fervour and good taste … (in) a performance to be remembered and treasured,” and in La Bohème with Tebaldi and Jussi Bjoerling, “Mr. Bastianini, young and handsome, was a most credible Marcello. His by-play with Musetta in Act 2 and his stepping in time to the piquant music in Act 4 following Colline’s `Sgombrino le sole’ testified to his awareness of details outside of his own part.” In the Gala Concert on 10 November, his rousing “Nemico della patria” from Chénier was deemed best of all by HDR in Opera.

He had sung Gérard in Andrea Chénier in the huge Arena di Flegrea in Naples as his sole open-air outing in 1955, but he was out in full force in 1956. At Caracalla, he sang Germont in La Traviata with Virginia Zeani, but the vastness proved a challenge, Cynthia Jolly in Opera said, Bastianini seemed strangely unwilling to sympathize with Violetta.” Then in Verona he sang his first ever Figaro in Barbiere but Libera Danielis in Opera found the opera “ill-suited to this vast auditorium or the open air, Ettore Bastianini gave a lively performance but did not exactly scintillate.” He repeated his barber at the Arena Flegrea, and his joie de vivre, as it exists can be heard on the CD now available.

On 1 December 1956, he appeared at the San Carlo Opera House as Valentino in Faust with Poggi, Pobbe and Arié with Santini conducting. Rossini’s Figaro with Gianna D’Angelo and Eugene Conley followed. William Weaver reported in Opera, “Ettore Bastianini – a singer I had seen and admired enormously in dramatic roles- also made a bad first impression. `Largo al factotum’ lacked brio and even, at moments, assurance. But from the second Act on, the performance settled down, and both singers and audience enjoyed themselves thoroughly.”

He led off 1957 in Florence as Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera with Cerquetti and Poggi, before heading to the Met in late January to reprise previous roles and to add Escamillo in Carmen, a role he repeated when the Company went to Philadelphia. Ettore chose to participate in another tour and duly displayed his talent in Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Richmond, Atlanta and Dallas.

Afterwards he rushed to Florence where at the Teatro Comunale, he sang in a series of Ernani performances with Cerquetti and Del Monaco. Then at the Arena Flegrea he sang Barnaba in La Gioconda, De Weerth in Opera News decrying a “lack of virility and satanic cruelty” but found that “his voice improves with every hearing.” Later in Verona, he sang La Bohème and Carmen with Simionato.

That year he expanded his presence in Mexico by appearing in Carmen with Jean Madeira and as Amonasro at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, as well as in Monterrey. The two cities’ opera seasons largely coincided and as many of the same artists were featured, flying 1,000 km to and fro meant added strain. In Monterrey he sang Ballo in Maschera, La Traviata and Carmen.

Back in Italy he sang with Leyla Gencer in Il Trovatore in Trieste, prior to another date with Callas at La Scala. With Giuseppe Di Stefano, they served up Un Ballo in Maschera on 7 December 1957 that was in a word, superb! Henry Wisneski in his book about Callas, described Ettore, “…his cold personality, lush voice, and brilliant top notes were ideal for the part of Renato. His singing of `Eri tu,’ earned him the most prolonged ovation of the evening.”

He began 1958 by appearing at La Scala in Adriana Lecouvreur with Clara Petrella and Di Stefano. The he skipped over to Parma for Carmen, to Como for Chenier and for a longer stay in Naples to sing Carmen, La Boheme, Forza and Tosca. In April he was back at La Scala singing Belcore in L’Elisir d’Amore with Renata Scotto and Di Stefano. Ever the introvert, Ettore surprised with fine comedy. In her book, Scotto referred to a recording but nothing materialized. Next he joined Callas on 19 May for her latest “exhumation,” Bellini’s Il Pirata, but part of his concentration likely lay on his assumption of the difficult role of Nabucco on 1 June. In the midst of that series, he participated in La Scala’s salute to the Brussels World’s Fair, singing in Tosca with Tebaldi and Di Stefano.  

At the Arena di Flegrea he sang in Carmen before sharing a La Favorita in Verona with Giulietta Simionato, causing Maestro Quadri to remark: “The King Alfonso role particularly suited his vocal and acting abilities, which had a way of showing themselves marvelously through the quality and nobility of his singing. They were rare things to be heard.” And those qualities can be heard in the recording made that summer.

Baastianini had made such great strides, so it was inevitable that Herbert von Karajan had taken notice of him. On 28 July 1958, he welcomed Ettore the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg as Posa in Don Carlos and then to Vienna in mid-September. Arriving by train, the baritone checked into the Hotel Prinz Eugen, before hiking to the Staatsoper, fifteen blocks away. At his debut, his fine Rigoletto was greeted with excited surprise because his Salzburg success in Don Carlos was so different. Quickly an idol to the Viennese, for them he would gladly render the cream of his repertoire during frequent and extended visits until 1965.

In that city during his spare time, he would stroll about smoking cigarillos, appreciating their stronger bite, and when he’d cast aside a butt, the trailing female entourage would scream and scramble for a souvenir. Later, at the wheel of his flaming red Porsche, he would quickly drive from Siena or Milan, it being unreasonable to fly, and stay at the Bristol Hotel near the Staatsoper. His constant companion was Zabo, a handsome Alsatian dog. Later when speaking about his friend then departed, his eyes would glisten.

It was in Vienna that certain idiosyncrasies were observed. At rehearsals he would sit alone, staring blankly out the window. Then, amidst the boiling summer heat, he would sit bundled in an overcoat, again by himself, outside the Staatsoper. After a while he would get into his Porsche, start the engine and sit for ten minutes before returning to the bench. He often seemed filled with melancholy, his large eyes so sad. Some, attempting conversation, felt a glass wall was thrown up. Yet he could laugh, particularly when clowning with fellow Italians in diverse dialects. In the end, most, even baritones, professed a fondness for him.

In October 1958 he returned to Monterrey to sing six operas, and to spell finis to his triumphs in that country. Henceforth he would find more lucrative times in Vienna and the USA. Then, following the usual route he went to Chicago to sing three performances of Il Trovatore with Bjorling and Eileen Farrell, and three of La Traviata with Eleanor Steber and Leopold Simoneau. Then back in Naples, he sang in Andrea Chénier on 29 November, “Vocally, Bastianini was in the best vocal form; his voice seemed less big than it had in the past, but it has lost none of its dark, smooth quality, and the singer has acquired considerable musicianship in the course of the past few seasons. He was never vulgar; he never forced or sobbed, and gave the figure of Gérard considerable dignity.”

The last presentation at La Scala that year was a staged version of Handel’s Eracle, abbreviated and sung by Schwarzkopf, Corelli and Barbieri with Ettore as Lichas. In spite of the magnificent music, it defied attempts to make it a living, breathing opera. In the New Year as Marcello, he was hailed as “a warm-hearted and intelligent singer as always” by CS in Opera. Ever in demand, he scampered between Vienna and Milan, visiting Lisbon twice with a Milan Ernani in between, but perhaps the most unusual trip was to Zagreb on 15 March for a single Andrea Chénier with local artists. Otherwise he sang mostly in Vienna.

Actually, one is assured a fine musical experience within the wondrous Giardino dei Boboli in Florence, thanks to the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra and to an ingenious layout. A high steep ridge rises behind the stage with the wing of the Pitti Palace backing the gently rising ground of the auditorium to produce quite a satisfactory sound.

In this exotic setting, Ettore began his second series of Nabucco performances on 8 July 1959. To Andrew Porter in Opera, “the spectacle represented open-air opera at its best. Bastianini brought more imaginative power than one had dared to expect. Nabucco’s great scena and aria struck responses which even the death of Rodrigo in the Salzburg Don Carlos had failed to touch.” He went on to Verona to sing in Il Trovatore with Gabriella Tucci and Corelli on 26 July, and then to the Arena di Flegrea to portray Tonio in Pagliacci.

In November 1959 he traveled to Dallas, Texas, a city he had visited in 1955 and 1957 while on tour with the Metropolitan Opera. Now Dallas sported its own opera company, thanks to Lawrence Kelly, a recent colleague of Carol Fox in Chicago. Aware of the Ettore/Maria box-office punch, he orchestrated their Lucia in Dallas on 6 November. “Bastianini’s Enrico was darkly forceful and a warm glory to hear”. To a reporter, he confessed that he felt inspired singing with Maria. He followed in Barbiere with a first Figaro in America that “skipped, pranced and spoofed its way to the head of any contemporary list”. (R. Agnew in Opera)

Returning to Naples on 28 November he sang in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Renata Tebaldi, the Adriana, fell ill at the eleventh hour, frantic calls sought out Magda Olivero who was especially associated with the role. Although still weak from recent surgery, Magda gallantly appeared and saved the day, accompanied by Simionato’s “passionate and regal Princess” and Bastianini’s “effective” Michonnet. In the third act he set eyes upon a priceless gamin, dancing as Venus, and like magic found his second great love! Manuela was seventeen, he thirty-seven. But on stage, he romanced Virginia Zeani in Thaïs before closing the year in Rome as Renato.

At La Scala on 8 January he sang an Andrea Chénier with Tebaldi which Opera liked, “Bastianini has progressed fast…a magnificent baritone cantante, (who) no longer merely sings. He realized the intricacies of Gérard’s character with subtlety and imagination.” In February and March he sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in Forza, Trovatore and Chénier. La Scala recalled him for eight performances of Ballo, after which he went to Vienna. He left for Verona, Salzburg and Naples, where on 27 November in Ernani, “As Charles V, he brought down the house with his aria in Act III. What mellow, appealing tones he has!”

After a session in Vienna, he came to a special time at La Scala. Management had dusted off Donizetti’s score of Poliuto for Maria Callas on 7 December 1960. HDR in Opera wrote: “She was at her very best in the great duet with Severo, the pro-consul and her former lover, admirably sung by Bastianini.” He remained to sing Posa in Don Carlos with Stella, Labò, Simionato and Christoff but HDR thought this was “one of his off-nights – the sword episode (the sword had stuck in the scabbard at one point) obviously put him off, and he seemed rather bored by the whole thing.” At the second performance he was vocally tired, having sung in four Poliutos as well as rehearsing La Forza del Destino, all within three weeks. That Forza was given on 10 January 1961 with Flaviano Labò and Antonietta Stella.

Afterwards, he flew to Miami not to relax but to sing Andrea Chénier at the Dade Auditorium with Tebaldi and Umberto Borsò. Back in Italy, he sang Nabucco in Palermo and back-to-back productions at la Scala, I Puritani with Scotto and Lucia with Joan Sutherland. But after a Ballo in Turin on 24 April, Giorgio Gualerzi in Opera had harsh words “(he was) returning after an intensive season which made serious inroads on the solidity and beauty of his voice.” The same applied to Posa in a broadcast of Don Carlos. But he had something special upcoming, a Gala at La Scala when he would join Joan Sutherland in Act II Lucia.

A week later he began his annual Vienna visit. Un Ballo in Maschera drew kinder words from the tenor Carlo Bergonzi, “most unforgettable was his Renato. At the Staatsoper, I never heard less than ten minutes of applause after his `Eri tu’. This aria, full of arpeggios, seemed as if it had been specially written for him, from the soft and mellow way in which he used to start `O dolcezze perdute, o memorie’, to his way of molding and phrasing the music. Verdi’s marking of phrases is one of the most elegant in music, and Bastianini, who was a noble singer, knew how to impart this elegance as well as expressiveness of the words.” Leaving Vienna, he recorded Don Carlos and Un Ballo in Maschera for DGG in Milan and then continued his escapades with Il Trovatore on 1 October in Berlin with the Rome Opera.

Surprisingly to this point, he had not discovered the American West Coast, nor vice-versa, but he righted matters on 6 October by appearing in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House in his now congenial role of Nabucco with Lucille Udovick as his lady. He followed as Renato in Un Ballo with Gré Brouwenstijn and Rigoletto with Mary Costa. Then in Los Angeles, he sang Amonasro in Aida and the jester again.

It was but a short jaunt to Dallas. There, on 16 November, he sang in Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland in one of her spectacular efforts. But Raoul Askew in Opera found him “indifferent on opening night but much more into things in subsequent performances.” At the end of 1961, he returned to Milan to portray Rolando in Verdi’s rarely-given La Battaglia di Legnano with Corelli and Stella.

Oddly reaction differed. In the audience: “to hear the exquisite half-voice with which Ettore attacks his third act aria was one of he most beautiful emotions of my life.” But to Claudio Sartori in Opera “The stylistic gifts for which we formerly admired in him seem to be enclosing, as an interpreter, in barriers of ice that prevent him from creating a character: he is always Bastianini, singing well, but with very little to say.”

It had been an eventful year, but Ettore felt buoyed. He imagined his goals were within reach. He was thirty-nine, at the height of his powers, certain that Manuela’s parents supported his cause. He was optimistic that family life, to which he had so long aspired, would finally be his. But it was not to be. Manuela rejected him and, in a flash, his dreams crumbled.  

So, what now? Taking a deep breath, he plunged back into his work. On 5 January 1962 he sang King Alfonso in La Favorita at La Scala. Giulietta Simionato, the scheduled Leonora di Gusman, the King’s favourite, awoke indisposed. Fiorenza Cossotto stepped up to sing with Ettore, Gianni Raimondi and a new bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov. That cleared the way for his first and only trip to Great Britain. He sang in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera on 23 February, with Jon Vickers and Amy Shuard. Opera regarded his Renato as “a high musical accomplishment but (given) with curious restraint. Any expectation that Bastianini’s Covent Garden debut would place an Italian `hammed’ performance amid the restrained Anglo-Saxons was turned upside down.”

Hardly had the applause faded when word came that his mother was gravely ill. Not feeling well himself, he tended to her needs and sang Rigoletto on 15 March in Palermo with Gianna D’Angelo and a rising young tenor from Modena, Luciano Pavarotti. He took his jester next to La Scala on 10 April but here disaster awaited in Act II. His voice broke, causing loud boos to erupt. Crushed, he threw away the rest of the opera, cancelled the series and raced to Siena to be with his mother. She died on 3rd May. Woeful and weary from all the turmoil, he approached the task of recording Otello for Decca, never having sung Iago. When he lacked the words, von Karajan sacked him and turned to Aldo Protti. Ominously, Ettore had a raw throat that was diagnosed as pharyngitis.

ettore bastianini hooey collection

His next Vienna sojourn began on 21 May with Don Carlos. He stayed until September except for two concerts on RAI Turin and a visit to the Salzburg Festival to sing Di Luna in Il Trovatore with Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli, his friend von Karajan on the podium. Back in Vienna on 23 September, he sang in Tosca with Antonietta Stella, who later suggested, “Scarpia was a role which he was not really satisfied with, perhaps because he had no `feel’ for the character.” July of 1962 was a busy time, as he recorded La Traviata and Il Trovatore for DGG, in Milan.

His second and last major visit to California began in San Francisco on 2 October in Il Trovatore with Elinor Ross and James McCracken. Edward Chichura in the audience remembered his Pagliacci: “When he stepped out in front of the gold curtain to sing the prologue, he was the scruffiest character one could see but, oh the sound!!” The official view agreed: “Ettore Bastianini, the Tonio, clowned ably and delivered the finest Prologue heard here in decades.” An exciting debutante, Marilyn Horne, sang Nedda. He added Marcello in La Bohème and Escamillo in Carmen while fitting in side trips to Sacramento, San Diego and Los Angeles.

Heading home, he paused in Chicago to sing four Rigolettos with Gianna D’Angelo and Richard Tucker, then paid a visit to a specialist in New York in hopes of discovering ailed him. Orror! A tumour had formed on his pharynx, the organ that controls vocal resonance. Surgery offered the best chance of survival but it would ruin his voice, a calamity he could not countenance. In despair, he fled to Milan for Trovatore and to fresh advice, but this new diagnosis mirrored the first.

With radiotherapy now an option, he leapt at this way out, while continuing to sing seven operas in Vienna. Only then did he endure three months of radiology at a Berne clinic. Afterwards he heard great news! The tumour was gone, his voice was intact, or almost so. Radiotherapy had dried the mucous membrane of the pharynx, weakened the adjacent musculature and left him prone to cracking on high notes. Feeling better, he went to Vienna on 2 April to sing the toreador in Carmen. He remained until mid-October, when it was time to fly off with a La Scala contingent to Japan. Watching him sing “Il balen’ and the ensuing music from Il Trovatore via video, being overcome by his poignant interpretation, I was ill-prepared to read in Opera that he “did not bother to employ more than rudimentary stage gestures and sang carelessly and casually, as though thoroughly bored.” Shame on such an insensitive critic!

A new check-up set alarm bells clanging. The disease was metastasizing to a gland in his neck and immediate attention was needed. Dismayed, he chose to see his commitments through and tell no one. Ending the year in Milan in Don Carlo and squeezing in a single Rigoletto in Zurich, he began treatment in Berne on the 16th. Even then, opera took preference; he left on the 18th to sing Nabucco in Strasbourg. Maestro Rigacci noted that “The public adored him, had spent long hours waiting at the box office and were forgiving when his voice broke on the final A Flat at the end of the cabaletta…” After more treatment, he returned to Vienna, but when a call came he left for Naples to deputize for an ailing colleague in Berlioz’s La Dannazione di Faust. He sounded lighter, even tenorish most of the time.

Now it was 1965, a fateful year. After Pagliacci and Aida in Vienna, he traveled to Florence for Tosca with Magda Olivero. In 1988 she recalled, “those performances were a nightmare, where I tried with all my strength to help the poor creature who was by then destroyed by the terrible illness. He tried desperately to force from his tormented throat the voice which no longer had its bloom, and during the most dramatic moments of Scarpia’s part, to support the effort it took him, he grabbed the table and stared at me in anguish. To a great baritone with a voice of gold go my constant and reverent thoughts.” But his destination was New York, where he had last appeared in 1960; now he was returning to sing a role not heard before from him … Scarpia.

Being denied the Otello recording must have rankled, for, at the Teatro Dell’Opera in Cairo on 13 March, he showed up ready and willing to sing Iago, and amazed everyone with just how ‘right’ he was. He returned to Vienna on 15 April as Posa but found a frowning committee afterwards with news he would not be invited back. There was little time to fret for his next round of radiotherapy was due, and given in such massive doses to threaten pneumonia. Once again energized, he flew to Japan in June for a series of concerts in Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama, including a recording of Italian songs. During this session, he had to explain the unfamiliar music to the Japanese conductor and even grasp the baton at times.

Now came an event he would not miss. Since childhood, he had been a member of Panther Contrada, a familial organization filled with his closest friends. Their Captain since 1959, he marched, head held high, in the Honour Guard at the “Palio di Siena,” a high risk horse race held twice each summer. When his horse “Ettore” won in 1963, he stood prouder than on any opera stage. In his time, Marco kept up the merry tradition.

After the Palio, he left to make his last tour of America. First he flew to San Francisco to sing Andrea Chénier with Tebaldi and Tucker. Then, in New York, he sang Lucia and then Don Carlos, only to read with despair Kolodin’s words “Ettore Bastianini’s recession continued in his Posa.” He went on to Detroit, then to Los Angeles, to Chicago, and to New York again. A coincidence? As the noble Rodrigo tumbled, so did Ettore before his fans. Few tuning in by radio could have known those familiar, but now fractured tones, would never be heard again. In the end, even the Metropolitan failed to renew his contract, but by this time he was past caring.

Bastianini returned to Siena, where, ever optimistic, he fell in love again, but the lady already had a husband! He created a sumptuous villa at Fornacelle, brightening the front hall with posters from his twenty La Scala openings, a record. When he showed a friend his hall of splendour, he relived each experience with a glow of pride suffusing his pain-wracked body. It was all futile. He would never take possession and by 1966 existed between apartment and clinic.

When it came time to enter hospital in Sirmione, dear friend Giulietta Simionato paid a visit, then reported to supers in Vienna upon the gravity of his situation. The great singer’s fine head of hair had turned snow white, his face transparent and bearded. His nurse managed to track down Manuela, now happily married and content in another life, and she was by his side when he died on 25 January 1967.

All Siena turned out two days later for his special state funeral. Flowers poured in from theatres in Europe and amongst the mourners, Giulietta Simionato and Gianandrea Gavazzeni were observed. As his coffin was borne along the Via di Citta on the shoulders of stalwart members of the Panther Contrada, the bell of the Palazzo Comunale tolled. In the small, sun-drenched cemetery beyond the Porta Laterina, Ettore Bastianini was laid to rest.

Mario Del Monaco knew him as a great and dear colleague, the dearest and the best he had in his career: “E, con infinita nostalgia, Ettore Bastianini, una delle piu belle voci di baritono di questa scorcio di secolo, un raro esempio di dizione e di belcantismo espressi con una voce di eccezionale bellezza.” (“One of the most beautiful voices from this part of the century, a rare example of diction and belcantismo expressed with a voice of extraordinary beauty.”)

Carlo Bergonzi remembered him so: “A natural beauty of voice, evenness of timbre, elegance of phrasing and gesture, soundness of diction and expression, a sure technique and, not least, a deep seriousness and professional discipline: these were the fundamental characteristics of Ettore Bastianini, which made him a great baritone – perhaps the last real Verdian baritone.

Finally, readers will have found amidst this mélange many differing views of Ettore Bastianini, both as a person and as a singer. It is true he experienced off days even when healthy, but those who encountered him when he was involved and in his best voice will always remember him as one of the great Italian baritones of the last century: a worthy compatriot of Messrs Galeffi, Ruffo and De Luca.  

I very much appreciate the memories shared by Christian Springer in Vienna, Luigi Croci and Mauro Ziglioli in Italy, John Standen in London, Edward Chichura and Father Matthias Montgomery of the US and David Hill in England. Most quotations stem from the Metropolitan OPERA NEWS, Opera magazine, Irving Kolodin’s THE METROPOLITAN OPERA and for comments relative Bastianini by singers/conductors and for a sense of events, the Italian biography, ETTORE BASTIANINI – Una Voce di Bronzo e di Vellutto by Marina Boagno and Gilberto Starone.

A second biography, also in Italian, was especially helpful in plotting the singer’s career, ETTORE BASTIANINI by Elvio Giudici, Eva Pleus, Allessandro Rizzacasa, Guido Tartoni and Fulvio Venturi, 1999 Nuova immagine editrice.

And MARIA CALLAS: The Art Behind the Legend by Henry Wisneski Doubleday 1975

Singing at the baths, gardens and arenas
When the summer heat became too intense, it was time for the outdoor festivals to flourish. For holidaying opera-lovers, the choice usually lay between the Verona Arena and the Baths of Caracalla. In the 1950s Ettore’s powerful voice enlivened these and other festivals. He sang Rigoletto in July 1954 at the Chinciano Terme in Sicily, and the same role a month later with Gianna D’Angelo and Di Stefano at the other baths, the Terme di Caracalla. This Festival began in 1937 as the summer retreat of the Rome Opera.

His next appearance outdoors came in late August 1955 at the Arena Flegrea, the summer haven in Naples, as Gerard in ANDREA CHENIER. 1956 saw Ettore busier with LA TRAVIATA with Zeani at Caracalla, a first ever Figaro in IL BARBIERE in Verona with Zeani and Cesare Valletti and another barber at the Arena Flegrea. His “joie de vivre” can be enjoyed in the BARBIERE recording made that summer.

Veronese tenor Giovanni Zenatello created the Arena di Verona in 1913 with eight performances of AIDA. Describing the scene, Mauro Ziglioli writes, “It is still a great event in the Italian musical field and this `anfiteatro’ can be filled with 20,000 people! Perhaps its stage is the largest in the world. Before each performance it is traditional to light very small candles (mocoletti) and this is a wonderful `spectacle within a spectacle’ – unfortunately it is possible to eat and drink before performances and during intermissions, but many do so during the opera! Sound varies depending on position of each singer and each spectator.”

In 1957 Ettore sang Barnaba in LA GIOCONDA at the Arena Flegrea in Naples and both LA BOHEME and CARMEN at the Verona Arena. The next summer he reappeared at the Arena Flegrea as Escamillo in CARMEN. After Salzburg, he took part in LA FAVORITA at Verona with Giulietta Simionato. Maestro Quadri observed: “the King Alfonso role particularly suited his vocal and acting abilities, which had a way of showing themselves marvelously through the quality and nobility of his singing. They were rare things to be heard.” They too can be heard in the recording made that summer.

In 1959 in those wonderful Giardino dei Boboli, where the opera spectacle was the domain of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Ettore sang NABUCCO on 8 July. According to Andrew Porter in OPERA, “The spectacle represented open-air opera at its best. Bastianini brought more imaginative power than one had dared to expect. Nabucco’s great scena and aria struck responses from him which even the death of Rodrigo in the Salzburg DON CARLOS had failed to touch.” After singing IL TROVATORE with Gabriella Tucci and Corelli on 26 July at Verona, he sang Tonio I PAGLIACCI at the Arena Flegrea.

His last two appearances at the leading summer festivals were both at the Verona Arena. On 24 July 1960 he began a series of I PAGLIACCIs as Tonio with Clara Petrella and Gastone Limarilli/Carlo Bergonzi. Late in July 1961, he sang Escamillo in CARMEN with Simionato and Corelli under the baton of Molinari-Pradelli. Six times he sang the toreador as his swan song to opera aficionados of summer.