Ettore Bastianini - A biography
by Charles A. Hooey
To begin, let us
indulge in a moment of fantasy. If it was feasible to link
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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