Obituary: Jules Bastin

Elizabeth Forbes
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:35

During a career lasting 35 years, the Belgian bass Jules Bastin acquired an enviable reputation both as a comic singer and as a basse chantante in the best French tradition.

At Covent Garden he appeared only in the former category, as Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier and Balducci in Benvenuto Cellini, but his wide repertory included such roles as Sarastro in Die Zauberflote, Hagan in Reyer's Sigurd, which he sang for Radio 3 and also recorded, King Henry in Lohengrin and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, which he sang at the Paris Opera, the Salzburg Festival, the Vienna State Opera, Brussels and Antwerp. However, his enormous figure, though it could be imposing in tragedy, was used to even greater effect in comedy, where his superb diction, especially in French, was also a major benefit.

Jules Bastin was born in Pont-Ligneuville, near Verviers, and taught English and History at a grammar school in Brussels before beginning vocal studies with the tenor Frederic Anspach, a noted teacher. He also attended the Opera Studio at the Theatre de la Monnaie, where he made his stage debut in 1960 as Caronte (Charon) in Monteverdi's Orfeo.

He appeared in Brussels, Liege, Charleroi and French provincial cities such as Rouen, singing Zuniga in Carmen, Bretigny in Manon and other minor roles. In 1972 he made his London debut as the Papal Treasurer, Balducci, in Benvenuto Cellini at a Prom concert in the Albert Hall, and Balducci became one of his favourite roles. He sang it at Covent Garden in January 1976, at La Scala with the Royal Opera that March, as well as in many other cities, including Buenos Aires, Lyons, Florence, and in 1995, in one of his last appearances, at the Rome Opera.

Meanwhile Bastin had made his Covent Garden debut in 1974 as Baron Ochs. This soon became another favourite role, which he recorded and sang in Rouen, Strasbourg, Amsterdam and Brussels. In 1975 he sang the Marquess of Calatrava in La forza del destino and the Hebrew Elder in Samson et Dalila at the Paris Opera, where in 1979 he took part in the first performance of the complete three-act version of Lulu, singing the Theatre director and the Banker. The same year he appeared at Aix-en-Provence, as Le Bailli (the Magistrate) in Werther and Bartolo in Le nozze di Figaro.

A new era began at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels on 10 November 1981, when Gerard Mortier took over the direction of the theatre. Bastin sang the Grand Inquisitor in the opening production, Don Carlos, and was described as a "gigantic praying mantis". For the next 10 years he appeared there frequently, as Pandolfe in Massenet's Cendrillon, Publius in La clemenza di Tito, the Badger and the Parson in Jancek's Cunning Little Vixen, the Mayor in Jenufa, the Theatre Director and the Banker in Lulu and many other roles. He scored a tremendous hit in 1986 as Baron Zeta in The Merry Widow, staged at the Cirque Royale, which was then transported to Blossom Music Center in Ohio, where his Baron was judged "endearingly goofy".

His other comic roles included Colonel Frank in Die Fledermaus, the Viceroy in La Perichole, both of which he sang in Strasbourg; Agamemnon in La Belle Helene in 1983 at Geneva, where he "added to his already healthy girth with a huge rubber ring" in the bathing scene in the third act. The same year he offered a notably drunken Varlaam in Boris Godunov at Avignon, and appeared as Pluto, Jupiter and Neptune in Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie in Aix. The Astrologer Siroco in Chabrier's L'Etoile at the Opera Comique in 1984 provided him with another enjoyable role, which he repeated at the Edinburgh Festival the following year, "in his most splendidly rotund form".

Bastin appeared several times in North America: in 1977 at Toronto he sang Sulpice in Donizetti's La fille du regiment, while in Philadelphia he sang Le Bailli in Werther (1984), a "roguish" Varlaam (1987) and "a deftly humorous" Gamekeeper in Dvork's Rusalka (1988). Having already sung the King of Clubs in Love for Three Oranges at Geneva in 1984, he scored one of the greatest triumphs of his career as Cleonte, the giant Cook with a penchant for pretty ribbons, at Aix in 1989. He also recorded this role.

Jules Bastin continued singing into the 1990s, appearing as Mozart's Bartolo at Glyndebourne and as Geronte in Manon Lescaut at Paris-Bastille in 1991. On 31 December that year he sang Bartolo in Brussels at the last performance of the Mortier regime at the Theatre de la Monnaie. In 1993 he took part in the first performance of Debussy's unfinished Rodrigue et Climene at the newly rebuilt Lyons Opera House and, his career coming full circle, sang the role of his debut, Caronte in Orfeo, at Salzburg.

Jules Armand Bastin, opera singer: born Pont-Ligneuville, Belgium 18 March 1933; died Brussels 2 December 1996.

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