Australian baritone, José Carbó and his partner, soprano Jenna Robertson think he’s the bees-knees!  And so do I. But more from them a bit later. 

Just before and just after the Second World War was a golden era for opera singers.  In the baritone register there were Tito Gobbi, Gino Becchi, Robert Merrill and the subject for today’s article, Ettore (the accent is forcefully on the first syllable) Bastianini;  in the tenor ranks we had Benjamino Gigli, Jussi Bjorling , Giuseppe di Stefano, Franco Corelli and Mario del Monaco and in the soprano ranks we had Maria Callas, Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nilssen and Kirsten Flagstaff.  Of course, there were others, but these were the most famous of the voices. I first came across Ettore Bastianini in the late 1970s while spending all of my pocket money (not much – I didn’t earn that much as a cabbie) on extending my repertoire, and library, with some operatic vinyls.  I came across a live recording of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, with Franco Corelli, Leontyne Price and Ettore Bastianini.  Performed in Salzburg it had the best credentials – Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.  The date of the recording was 31 July 1962. I soon realised, however, that something was amiss. The baritone, Bastianini, was occasionally sounding off-key and his voice was cracking.  In fact he was (as we in Australia put it) crook.  

I asked my singing teacher what he thought and he confirmed that Bastianini had actually continued singing despite knowing he had something wrong with his voice.  It was later confirmed he was suffering from a throat tumour.

Bastianini started his vocal career as a bass.  At the age of 20 he won first prize and a scholarship in a National Singing Contest in Florence but as it was war-time he was soon drafted into the Italian Airforce where he remained until war’s end in 1944.  He couldn’t enjoy the financial benefits of his scholarship, however, until 1946. He began making his mark on the operatic world with appearances as Don Basilio in Il Barbiere di Seviglia and Sparafucile in Rigoletto.  Always as a bass. 

In 1947 he visited Cairo for the first time.  He must have had a love affair with the city because he performed there no less than four times.  The opera house in Cairo was then a magnificent building and patronised quite well by the extensive European population of what was then more or less an international city.  Sad to note, however, that the building was burnt down in 1971. A new building with appropriate middle-eastern features has replaced it but in a different site.

In 1951, Bastianini left the stage for seven months to re-train his voice and to study the baritone repertoire.  He returned on 17 January 1952 as Germont senior in La Traviata in his home town of Siena, but it was not a great success.  After more intense study he returned as Rigoletto which was well received. 

In 1953 he sang opposite Maria Callas in Lucia di Lammermoor, the first of many pairings with her.  He first sang at New York’s Metropolitan in 1954 and from 1957 was a regular member until his final and 87th performance there, as Rodrigo, in 1965.  Sadly it was also the last performance of his career.  His last performances there were mixed – either acclaimed or, as in Tosca, booed by the audience.

However he still continued to sing in Europe whilst contracted to the Metropolitan.  In May 1955 he appeared, with Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano, at Milan’s La Scala in the famous Luchino Visconti production of La Traviata.  Carlo Maria Giulini conducted.  He also started recording for Decca Records.  In 1957 he made his first appearance on Italian television in a filmed version of Il Trovatore with Leyla Gencer, Mario del Monaco and Fedora Barbieri.  He was popular in all the opera houses he performed in and was in constant demand.

Just months after his mother’s death from cancer in 1962, Bastianini was finally diagnosed with throat cancer.  He spent the first four months of 1963 in treatment in Switzerland. Except for some family members he had not discussed his illness with anyone.  In April he returned to the stage, singing at the Vienna State Opera. Critics noted that his voice seemed drier and gave him mixed reviews.

Still he never revealed the cause of his ailment.

As his health worsened he became depressed but was cheered by his team “the Panther” winning the Siena horse race ‘Il Palio’ while he was President and Captain.  Shortly afterwards he performed successfully as Conte di Luna at the Salzburg Festival. Thereafter he performed in Tokyo and in December 1963 he sang his last role at La Scala as Rodrigo in Don Carlo.

Over the last two years of his life his voice declined steadily and his performances were inconsistent.  More and more opera houses declined to have him perform, and the end came on 25 January 1967. He was 45 and was buried in his home town of Siena.  A very sad loss for a much loved singer.

On his tombstone is inscribed:

He knew glory, he understood pain, he made everybody love him.

The following is an edited version of Jenna Robertson’s and José Carbó’s thoughts on Ettore Bastianini:

He is one of our favourite ever baritones – the reasons are too many to list. Here are a few.  He loved dogs.  He preferred to drive everywhere rather that fly. There is no difference between his sound on live or studio recordings, meaning his actual resonance was more than enough for most theatres. The richness and colour of his timbre were exquisite. His was one of those voices you never tire of hearing. His diction was exemplary and held in the highest regard by his peers.

His legato and ability to keep perfect vowel position through the dynamic range was electrifying. His control of all the necessary technical requirements to keep the voice rich and dark whilst full of ‘ping’ were almost unmatched. The man was one of the most committed technicians we have ever heard. His dedication to developing and maintaining such a glorious sound is testament to his work ethic.

A voice like this is only partially born. Most of it is made through application and hard work. The world is indebted to those who helped him through this meticulous and often perilous transition from bass to baritone. To craft such a sound is testament to a soul whose most important purpose was to bring joy and wonder into the lives of all who heard him sing. Long live Ettore!!