Ettore Bastianini was born in Siena, in 1922, and first began performing as a boy of fifteen in the local church choir. He had a deep voice, even as a boy, and sang in the bass section of the choir. He sang not only for masses but also for more ambitious religious functions. He was encouraged to start serious vocal training in 1939, when he was 17. He continued singing bass, and after a year of study he started singing in contests and in 1942, when he was 20, won an important contest in Florence, which carried a scholarship with it as part of the prize. The timing was unfortunate, however, because war loomed, and Ettore was drafted into the Air Force. Nevertheless, at war’s end, he was able to resume singing in Siena and Ravenna, and was able to take advantage of the scholarship he had won, and began singing at the Teatro Comunale in Florence. His voice was, from the beginning, better than good, and he attracted attention early on, and after only a year or so his name began appearing in many regional theaters. In 1947, just two years out of the Air Force, he toured Egypt, singing the standard Italian repertoire, including Lucia and the Marriage of Figaro. He was also, importantly, appearing in casts that were first rate. The repertoire soon increased to include Aida and Rigoletto. He was still singing bass at this point. In 1948 he made his La Scala debut as Teiresias in Oedipus Rex. He did a broadcast recital on Italian radio in 1950, and shortly thereafter decided to study again and move upward vocally to sing baritone. His initial attempts at singing baritone were somewhat halting, but he soon mastered it, and began to have major successes, including a Rigoletto in Siena.
Little by little, his fame as a baritone began to spread, and engagements became more prestigious. Bastianini had a lot going for him; not only was his voice dark, powerful and beautiful, but he was himself a most handsome man, not unlike Corelli in that regard.
In 1953, Bastianini performed opposite Maria Callas in Lucia, and later that year he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Traviata. By now, his fame was solid, and he was enjoying a wonderful career. He began singing as a regular at the Met, began to accept important recording contracts, and to sing world-wide. These were golden years, and his performance schedule and repertoire expansion were enormous, far too extensive to recount here, but easily consulted, as he was so famous. We must jump those many and extraordinary years, however, to say that his career ended tragically.
His final performance at the Met was in December of 1965 and, while it was not generally known, he had been diagnosed as early as 1962 with a throat tumor. While he managed to carry on with his career for three more years, he was growing weaker. It began to show in some poor reviews that he had begun to receive in the press. By 1965 it was simply too hard for him to go on, and the end came in January of 1967. He was a mere 45 years of age. He was buried in his hometown, Siena. A sad story, certainly, but the accomplishments during that short life were huge. As I have mentioned, the voice was extraordinary. I don’t think anyone ever heard a weak or poor Bastianini, at least not until the decline at the end. I think a good place to start with this wonderful baritone is at the peak of his powers. Here is spine-tingling “Eri Tu” from The Masked Ball:
Now how about that for a voice! It’s not hard to hear the bass in the voice; he was clearly on the bass/baritone line. He carries up so much weight that the voice can only honestly be called extraordinarily powerful and ringing for a baritone. I suppose that this weight in the voice begs the question of how long he could have sung like that, a tutta forza. However that is a meaningless hypothetical question. He lived for 45 years, and in that life-span the simple fact is that for almost his entire career, he was able to sing this way, and it was very thrilling, indeed.
Here is something that might be called “Bastianini the Bass” This is “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” and I would have to say that he is pretty clearly singing bass at this point. He sounds a little like Ezio Pinza, in fact:
Very strong singing, certainly. One might argue, I suppose, about the stylistic accuracy of that much power on this aria. It is a serenade, after all. However, no matter. He was Bastianini, and he was great! That’s how he chose to use his extraordinary voice, and that is a personal and artistic decision. Nothing for me to gainsay, that’s for certain! But one thing is certain, and that is that there is no small amount of bass voice there!
I think it makes sense to dwell where the art is exceptional and characteristic. In Ettore Bastianini’s case that is Verdi and high drama. Here is "Il balen del suo sorriso," from Il Trovatore:
This is Bastianini the baritone without doubt. There is also a fine legato line here that is most attractive. This is a stylistic refinement that accompanies the power and drama, and helps fill out the picture considerably. Something else is notable here, and that is something that often accompanies stylistic refinement—clarity of enunciation. His Italian is so clear and crisp that I swear it could be understood even by somebody who didn’t know Italian! Really exemplary.
Finally, I don’t wish to leave the impression that Bastianini only sang “a tutta forza,” no matter the material. In fact, he could sing in the classical style as well. Here is Gluck’s “O del mio dolce ardor,” from Paride ed Elena:
Still intense and noble, but within the bounds of stylistic propriety, and very commanding.
Ettore Bastianini, the Great Baritone!