Ettore Bastianini: Recollections

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O dolcezze perdute, o memorie … 
Some personal recollections of Ettore Bastianini 
by Christian Springer

From 1958 until 1965 Ettore Bastianini sang the leading roles in twelve operas at the Vienna State Opera. He appeared in three new productions – Un ballo in maschera in September 1958 (Mitropoulos; Nilsson, di Stefano, Simionato, Köth), Andrea Chénier in June 1960 (von Matacic; Tebaldi, Corelli) and La forza del destino in September 1960 (Mitropoulos; Stella, Simionato, di Stefano, Kreppel, Dönch). He also made regular appearances in Don CarloLa traviataRigolettoIl trovatoreAidaPagliacciLa bohémeCarmen and Tosca which, due to the repertory system of the Vienna opera house, were often unrehearsed performances. Very quickly he became a star earning the Viennese baritone a top fee of 20,000 Austrian schillings per performance.

The Viennese public adored him and remained faithful to its idol even when, for reasons then unknown to them, he started to crack frequently and painfully on high notes from F („d’amor“ at the end of Renato’s Eri tu) to A flat („al pari di voi“ at the end of Tonio’s Prologue). Instead of singing the written versions without the interpolated high note, in operas such as Pagliacci he always attempted to give those high notes to the audience. When, years later, the cause of his death became known, the reason for his cracking was generally attributed to his disease.

To my ears, the fundamental problem was that Bastinini’s voice was not really a baritone, but a bass-baritone, the kind of basso cantante used by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti for many roles (sung today mostly by baritones, but also by basses). This was transformed by Verdi into a more tenor-like and dramatic voice-type able to sustain a higher tessitura. The classical basso cantante such as Antonio Tamburini (Faenza 1800 – Nizza 1876), generally would not go higher than F sharp and would absolutely refuse to sing a G or a G sharp. It was Tamburini who in 1848 declined in London – as did his collegue Giorgio Ronconi, who is considered the first real baritone in opera history – to sing Don Carlo in Ernani. It lay too high for him and the famous contralto Marietta Alboni saved the situation and took over the role. Henry Chorley described Tamburini’s voice as follows:

He was a singularly handsome man; his voice was rich, sweet, extensive and equal – ranging from F to f‘, two perfect octaves – and in every part of it entirely under control. His execution has never been exceeded. […] No one since himself has so thouroughly combined grandeur, accent, florid embellishment and solidity. 
Apart from the mention of florid embellishment, this could be a good description of Bastianini’s voice, whose natural centre stayed half a tone, or perhaps even a tone lower than the tessitura of most of the Verdi roles he used to sing. Listening to the recording of the famous performance of Ernani in Florence 1957 (Mitropoulos; Cerquetti, del Monaco, Christoff) – when the 35 year old singer was in excellent physical and vocal shape – one immediately becomes aware that Bastianini has severe problems in sustaining Don Carlo’s tessitura. This can clearly be heard in the opening duet with Elvira. A bass-baritone can go on for some time to stretch his high register beyond its natural limits, but after time problems will inevitably arise. Leaving problems with the passaggio di registro unresolved and for years forcing the top caused cracking. The desperate efforts of the singer to prove that the upper register of his voice was intact unfortunately led nowhere.

In his last Viennese years I remember Bastianini strolling around the State Opera for half an hour or more before performances without having the courage to enter the house, so terrible was his fear of cracking again in front of over 2000 people. On some occasions, in Pagliacci, he made his entrance as Tonio to sing the Prologue before the curtain at the very last moment; he was without make-up and wig, his grey hair and ghastly paleness making an appalling impression on the audience. I remember the singer being always very nervous on stage, but very relaxed after the performances when he joked with his fans – mainly girls – at the stage entrance.

From the beginning of the 60s I frequently had occasion to be on stage, as a super, together with Bastianini. For us teenagers it was an overwhelming experience to watch (and act with) the great singers of the day. Their names were Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Stella, Moffo, Nilsson, Simionato, Wunderlich, Di Stefano, Corelli, Vickers, Taddei, Protti, Hotter, Schöffler, Kunz, Berry, Sandor Konya, Siepi, to mention just a few. 

From a short distance, say 3-5 metres, Bastianini’s voice surprisingly sounded rather small and without much timbre, a phenomenon encountered in some singers. But the voice was well projected and developed its volume and colour in the vast auditorium. There were many nights when Bastianini was in excellent voice and cut a believeable figure, mainly as Conte di Luna in Il trovatore, Don Carlo in La forza del destino and Rodrigo in Don Carlo. There were also performances when he sang roles which did not really fit his stage presence and vocal personality, such as Scarpia or Rigoletto. In some roles he regularly sang out of tune (especially in the quartet in act III of Don Carlo) or did not even try to act. The newspaper reviews commented on these off-nights without pity, but Bastianini seemed impassive. Only after his death the critics understood that they had atttended the last performances of an artist who gave everything to fight his terrible disease and tried to earn money in order to pay his medical bills. Vienna was terrified to hear from Giulietta Simionato about his still unknown illness, and terribly shocked when notice of his death arrived.

In 1986, almost twenty years after his untimely death, I was asked to write an article about the baritone, but the project never materialized. In search of documented material on the singer from collegues who had worked with him on stage I had asked my dear friend Magda Olivero for her recollections of Bastianini. On July 18, 1986 she wrote to me:

I sang Mazepa with him at the Comunale di Firenze [in June 1954]: in this opera I was his wife and there is a wonderful love duet. Well, I myself, who lived always intensely the characters I represented, found myself with a man on my side with a marvellous voice, but with nothing to convey to me. In fact, I felt him being absent. Also during the stage rehearsals, I remember him standing leant at a window and staring out, losing himself in the emptiness and returning only in those moments in which the opera needed him to intervene.

I had the impression, then, of a tragic man with severe problems in his life. He was very much loved by women and I was fortunate to save a very beautiful young girl from suicide she wanted to commit for not having been given response to her great love for the famous singer.

My second tragic encounter with Bastianini was in Tosca, again at the Teatro Comunale di Firenze. The disease had already attacked his vocal organ and, desperately, he grasped at any resource, not least alcohol, to be able to produce the sounds. I believe these appearances were among the last ones of his glorious carreer.

To conclude, I can claim to have sung with Bastianini, but not to have had any personal conversation with him. My only impressions are of a man with such a great voice, but tortured in his brief life.

At his funeral, at Sirmione, there were only two persons who attended: Simionato and Castiglioni. What sadness!

Unfortunately, my contribution is not what you might have expected, but what I wrote is the only impressions which the glorious Ettore Bastianini left to me.

Bastianini’s recordings, even the live ones, cannot do full justice to his stage presence. They fail to give a precise idea of the velvet of that exceptional voice. With all his personal problems and his occasional faults as a singer, musician and interpreter, he was so sympathetic and human on stage that mere recorded sound fails to comunicate to those who never heard him in a live performance what it meant to be Ettore Bastianini“.

The inscription on Bastianini’s tombstone on Siena’s cemetery says everything about the singer and his career:

Ha conosciuto la gloria,
Ha compreso il dolore,
Ha saputo farsi amare,
Ha vissuto più di una vita.

He reached glory,
He understood sorrow,
He knew how to make himself loved,
He lived more than one life.

Christian Springer

Christian Springer is a Vienna-based free-lance translator and writer on musical subjects.
He is the author of the following books: Verdi und die Interpreten seiner Zeit, Holzhausen Verlag, Vienna 2000; Enrico Caruso. Tenor der Moderne, Holzhausen Verlag, Vienna 2002; Verdi-Studien (Verdi in Wien; Hanslick versus Verdi; Verdi und Wagner; Zur Interpretation der Werke Verdis; Re Lear – Shakespeare bei Verdi), Edition Praesens, Vienna 2005; Giuseppe Verdi – Simon Boccanegra. Dokumente – Materialien – Texte, Praesens Verlag, Vienna 2008 

This article was first published in The Record Collector and is reproduced by permission.