Ettore Bastianini was born and died in Sienna (1922 – 1967). From 1945 to 1951 he sang as a bass. He was good enough to sing at La Scala. But by ’51 he was convinced that he was a baritone. He reworked his technique and debuted as a baritone in 1952 without a lot of success. He did more work with his voice and again resumed singing in his new vocal range this time to much acclaim; by the end of 1953 he had reached the Met.
He sang in the New York house until the end of 1963. His last performance was almost 12 years to the day from his first. During that span he sang 87 times at the Met, most of them between 1953 and 1957. The 10 performances he sang in New York in 1960 were the result of vacancies created in the Met’s Italian repertory by the sudden death of Leonard Warren.
The last part of his career was marred by the effect of throat cancer which he kept hidden from colleagues and the public. He died from this disease at age 44. Cancer robbed him and his audience of what should have been his best years.
In addition to the effects of illness the reason that he sang relatively few performances at the Met was the competition he faced there. His career overlapped those of Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, and Cornell MacNeil. At his best, however, he could keep up with the most distinguished Verdi baritones – which is, of course, what he was.
The best part of Bastianini’s voice was its middle which was dark and vibrant. Though it’s hard to tell from many of his recording his high notes were a little strained and open especially if compared to those of Warren. Here is his 1954 recording of “Eri tu” with its preceding recitative. The voice is bright and subtle with a dark and rich sound. The subtlety diminished in his latter years as did the richness of his middle voice. How much was due to time and how much was the result of his disease and its precursors is not known to me.
Still, in June of 1962 he could still give a powerful rendition of Rigoletto’s great second act monologue “Cortigiani vil razza dannata“. A few weeks later he was a little less successful with “Il balen“, though he does better with it than almost anyone today could. Verdi’s villain needs to sing this number like an angel to make the effect that its composer intended. The Count is driven mad by sexual jealousy which is why Bernard Shaw said the baritone portraying him should never – never – sit down. Next time you see Il Trovatore keep your eye out for a chair.
One never gets to hear the soprano – baritone duet from Cavalleria Rusticana with an outstanding baritone. The economics of any opera house require that a second rank baritone be engaged for this part. The superb Anonietta Stella and Bastianini show how effective and rousing “Oh il signore vi manda compar Alfio” can be.
Bastianini’s stage persona was a bit unusual. In character he was virile and authoritative. When he took his curtain calls he pranced before the curtain and threw finger waves to the audience. Bastianini was in the tradition of the great dark Italian baritones such as Ruffo and Stracciari, though he lacked the elegance of the latter. The Verdi baritone seems an endangered species; let’s hope for a resurgence.
All humans come to a sad end, but Bastianini’s was particularly melancholy. So let’s finish on a happy note. Nobody can make you happier than Rossini. Among the Swan of Pesaro’s happiest confections is “Largo al factotum“.