Recordings > Historical

MASSENET: Thaïs

spacer Forti, Hussu; Scarlini, Bastianini, Massaria; Trieste Opera chorus and orchestra, Toffolo

Recordings Historic Thaïs Cover 812

It's worth some discomfort to experience these nuggets from Ettore Bastianini's glory decade of the 1950s. Still fresh from his 1952 debut as a baritone, which followed a false start in the bass repertoire, Bastianini was very much the emerging star when he somehow found time to make these out-of-the-way appearances in peripheral repertoire — Il Tabarro in Hamburg (1953) and a fragmented Italian-language Thaïs in Trieste (1954). The recorded sound, especially in the latter, is something of a trial, and he is partnered by singers and conductors rarely encountered elsewhere. Undaunted, Bastianini is true to his best standard; there's also a distinct impression that he is inspiring his colleagues to unusual efforts.

Nowhere does he sound either strained (as he would in the 1960s, due to the ravages of throat cancer) or indifferent (as critics sometimes charged). The rugged mahogany timbre rings through the distorted sound, fiery at the top and dramatically sensitive, tirelessly unfurling the big phrases. As a naïvely direct, vulnerable Athanäel, and in the briefer Michele sample, the baritone encompasses emotional contrasts while savoring words with his characteristic rumbling consonants. 

The repertoire is not all that remote. While he spent most of his brief heyday in mainstream Verdi and Puccini, Bastianini (1922–67) seems to have been a quick study, a singer whose curiosity could, on occasion, lead him to Gluck as well as Stravinsky. He returned to both of the roles sampled here — more than once, in the case of Il Tabarro, and perhaps more auspiciously, though no recording is known to exist, in a 1959 Thaïs in Naples opposite the vibrant soprano Virginia Zeani. 

But no one should dismiss these provincial casts either. Fiorella Carmen Forti, the Thaïs, has serious liabilities above the staff, where her pitch and tone both can go awry, but she is so intently engaged, so flexible and attuned to the character, as both sinner and penitent, that the listener pulls for her — and occasionally is rewarded by a stunning high phrase in her final scene. The men in the cast have rich voices, especially tenor Glauco Scarlini as Nicias. The major surprise is conductor Luigi Toffolo, who apparently languished in the minors, but who leads a taut yet flexible performance. The theatrics are never tasteless, the musicianship is secure. 

Massenet is abused far more here by the many cuts (which leave the second half of the opera feeling especially like a highlights disc) than by the Italian translation. To be honest, librettist Louis Gallet's poetics do not deserve enormous respect, and it is often preferable to hear Italians caressing their own vowels rather than massacring those of their neighbors. (Bel Canto Society's stunning Italian-language Carmen from Palermo in 1959, with Simionato, Corelli and Freni, should, incidentally, clinch that argument.)  

To some adventurous listeners, even the provincial touches in this Thaïs — the Italian translation and the presence of an audience that conveys its perplexity, boredom and then some hard-won enthusiasm — will have a gritty, authentic feel that's more welcome than studio overrefinement. In both works the Italian stylistics offer a heady historical flashback.

Bastianini's Il Tabarro on Hamburg radio has been available on disc in its entirely for some time (Great Opera Performances B0056K11CK). The twenty-minute finale, offered as a bonus here, represents its strengths quite well, especially Bastianini's sinister, duplicitous but not overstated Michele. The other singers contribute an imitable mid-century Italian flavor; soprano Nora de Rosa's vibrato has a life of its own. Conductor Mario Cordone has an ear for both suspense and atmosphere. spacer

DAVID J. BAKER

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4