Mattia Battistini (1856-1928) was born to an upper middle class Roman family. He dropped out of university studies (what he was studying is uncertain) to take singing lessons with Venceslao Persichini at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in 1877. By the end of the following year he had made such progress that he debuted as Alfonso XI King of Castile in Donizetti’s La Favorita. The venue was the Teatro Argentina in Rome.
For the next three years he toured widely singing the standard Italian baritone roles. In 1881 he went to Buenos Aires and spent a year touring South America. On his return to Europe he stopped in Madrid and Barcelona where he sang Figaro in The Barber. He was hugely successful and from then on he was a star of the brightest magnitude.
He returned to South America in 1888. His voyage was so rough that he developed a stage 4 phobia of sea travel and never crossed the Atlantic again. The Met tried to engage him, but he refused. Even crossing the English Channel was a challenge, though managed the journey often.
From 1892 on, he regularly appeared at the Imperial theaters of Saint Petersburg and Moscow. He’d stop at Warsaw on the way to Russia. He travelled in a private railroad car along with 30 or so trunks of costumes in addition to his personal effects. Only The Great War and the subsequent Russian Revolution ended his imperial career.
He is often called the last great bel canto singer because of the ease and beauty of his singing. But he also sang contemporary roles like Gerard in Andrea Chenier, Scarpia in Tosca, and the baritone parts in Pagliacci. He’d typically sing the prologue in evening clothes and then do Silvio for the rest of the opera. There were times when he stuck to Tonio for the duration of the opera. Leoncavallo is said both to have hated this switching of roles and also to have sanctioned it. Take your pick. There are also tales of the audience leaving the theater after the prologue as Battistini’s singing of the piece was all they’d come for.
Everyone who heard him in performance seems to have been awestruck by the quality of his voice and the brilliance of his technique. Some calling his sound the most beautiful ever produced by either man or woman. The bass Alexander Kipnis always cited Battistini as the greatest singer he had heard, his voice ringing like a golden bell. Frances Alda, who sang Gilda to Battistini’s Rigoletto, considered him “the finest singer I have ever heard. Not only for his magnificent baritone voice, but for the perfection of his art of singing.” Kipnis born in 1891 could only have heard Battistini in the later stage of his career. The same applies to Alda who was born the year after the great baritone made his first operatic appearance.
Battistini sang in public until the year before his death. By all accounts he did not lose a lot to the years. For a relatively concise depiction of his career both on the stage and in the recording studio see La Gloria D’Italia by Michael Aspinall. The definitive biography of the singer is Jacques Chuilon’s Mattia Battistini: King of Baritones and Baritone of Kings. If you go to the Amazon link just listed and click on the book cover, the full text of the bio will appear. It tells the reader just about everything concerned with one of opera’s greatest performers.
The basic characteristics of Battistini’s voice, those which distinguished him from most other singers, were the complete control he had over his voice which was a high baritone and the beauty of his sound. He could sing forte to great effect while maintaining full vocal control as he diminished his tone to the gentlest pianissimo.
I’ll start with Verdi whose operas were at the center of Battistini’s repertoire. They knew each other. Verdi seems to have liked the baritone’s way with his music. Don Carlo in Ernani was one of Battistini’s most prominent roles. Like many of Verdi’s operas the leading baritone gets the best music. Lo vedremo veglio audace is from Act 2. The bass is Aristodemo Sillich. Vieni meco, sol di rose is from the same act. The delicacy of its delivery is matchless. The third act is the opera’s best; it’s dominated by the baritone who after his accession as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V forgives the rest of the cast which has been conspiring against him. O sommo Carlo evokes the shade of Charlemagne.
Macbeth’s aria Pietà, rispetto, amore is sung just before his demise. It has a piano accompaniment. The baritone’s voice is shown to great effect and is a fine example of Verdi’s affinity for the baritone range. The high note at the conclusion, of course, is not in the score. Another example of an interpolated high notes is those at the end of the Vendetta Duet from Act 2 of Rigoletto. The soprano is Lulu Hayes. Battistini was 65 when this recording was made. Di Provenza from Traviata is sensitively sung in an abbreviated and somewhat reconstructed form. Eri tu from Un Ballo in Maschera is sung without the great recitative that precedes it. It’s a more plaintive interpretation than usual for this aria.
Vien Leonora is from La Favorita, the first opera Battistini ever sang. The role of King Alfonso remained in his repertoire throughout his career. The stylistic grace and easy piano singing he brings to the piece places him at the top of bel canto baritones. The cabaletta is equally well done.
The baritone part in Lucia Di lammermoor usually goes to a second rank baritone. Cruda funesta smania is from Act 1. Enrico decalims his hatred for the Ravenswood clan in general and Edgardo (his sister’s lover) in particular. Battistini displays more voice than the part usually gets in the opera house.
Jules Massenet was so taken with the singer’s voice that he rewrote the lead part of his Werther for baritone when he heard that Battistini wanted to sing the part in Saint Petersburg in 1902. He sang the role in French there. In this recording Pourquoi me reveiller is in Italian. The aria is rewritten, not merely transposed down. It is sumptuously sung. Another French aria that Battistini regularly performed is Avant de quitter (also in Italian) from Gounod’s Faust.
Battistini regularly performed Don Giovanni. The role was a little low for him, so he transposed it up. Deh, vieni alla finestra is from his first recording session in 1902. The sound is surprisingly good. It’s with a piano accompaniment.
His renowned interpretation of the Prologue from Pagliacci includes the two interpolated high notes at the aria’s end. He was probably the singer who first added them.
His recitals often included a number of songs. I’ll end this piece with his rendition of Tosti’s Ideale. Battistini’s thalassophobia deprived the Met and the rest of North America of one of opera’s supremely gifted singers.
Never cared for him. The voice doesn’t flow, sounds a bit constricted, and that narrow, irritating vibrato.
When I played four Battistini recordings for Alexander Kipnis and asked him if any of the discs captured his (Battistini’s) tone quality, he replied, “None. Not his Golden tone, nor his phrasing. If you hadn’t told me whose recordings these were, I would never have guessed Battistini’s. The recording equipment of that time was very poor.”
Alexander Kipnis’s recollections of Battistini appeared in an article I was commissioned to write about him for High Fidelity Magazine. He told me that he and other young singers were so taken by the bell-like purity of Battistini’s voice that all of them felt it was futile to keep studying because they could never phrase as magnificently nor approximate the “golden bell” quality of Battistini’s voice. Richard Crooks, who heard him in concert very late in his (Battistini’s) career, had a similar reaction. “He was so regal,” Crooks said. “Although he was old then, he was trim, impeccably dressed, and he wore a white toupee that made him look younger. From the first tone he sang there was an unusual sigh from the entire audience, a recognition that they were seeing and hearing a voice and artist who was unique and was still in command of his technique.”
And some voices record better that others. I love Escalais and Leo Slezak’s ancient recordings. I saw Anna Moffo live and even the newer recordings don’t sound like her.
Having known her, she confirmed to me that most of her recordings were made during the period in which singers were placed on numbered squares in recording studios, and echo was added in the mastering process.
A pity. Her voice was so full and lush. Recordings just make an edge sound.