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 Carlo, La traviata, Rigoletto, Il
trovatore, Aida, Pagliacci, La bohéme, Carmen 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
The Viennese public adored him and remained faithful to its
idol even when, for reasons then unknown to them, he started
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
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
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
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
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
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
the famous singer.
My second tragic encounter with Bastianini was in Tosca,
again at the Teatro Comunale di Firenze. The disease had
attacked his vocal organ and, desperately, he grasped at
not least alcohol, to be able to produce the sounds. I believe
these appearances were among the last ones of his glorious
To conclude, I can claim to have sung with Bastianini, but
not to have had any personal conversation with him. My only
are of a man with such a great voice, but tortured in his
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
Ettore Bastianini left to me.
Bastianini’s recordings, even the live ones, cannot
do full justice to his stage presence. They fail to give
idea of the velvet of that exceptional voice. With all his
personal problems and his occasional faults as a singer,
interpreter, he was so sympathetic and human on stage that
mere recorded sound fails to comunicate to those who never
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 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
This article was first published in The Record Collector and
is reproduced by permission.