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Mattia Battistini – “Vien Leonora” – “La Favorita” – G. Donizetti (recorded maybe in 1910-11)

by Luca

This is an “ancient” recording. Maybe 1910-11. Mattia Battistini was the last baritone in possession of the perfect nineteenth-century voice color and technique. A perfect exemple of how had to be the “real” baritone voice: smooth, light, extended and velvet. Not too big or dark.
Mattia Battistini (27 February 1856 – 7 November 1928) was an Italian operatic baritone. He became internationally famous due to the beauty of his voice and the virtuosity of his singing technique, and he earned the sobriquet “King of Baritones”.
Battistini was born in Rome and brought up largely at Collebaccaro di Contigliano, a village near Rieti, where his parents had an estate. The Battistinis were ancestrally from Rieti, the ancient capital of the Sabines, and Mattia Battistini always looked like an ancient Roman, with his imposing physique, high forehead and monumental nose.
They were a well-to-do family, long established in the field of medicine. His grandfather, Giovanni, and uncle, Raffaele, were personal physicians to the Pope and his knighted father, Cavaliere Luigi Battistini, was a professor of anatomy at the University of Rome. They preferred the future baritone to take up a career in medicine or law, and sent him to old and exclusive preparatory schools (the Collegio Bandinelli and later the Istituto dell’ Apollinare) where he gained a classical education.
From the beginning, Battistini had shown great musical talent, so, to the dismay of his mother, née Elena Tommasi, he dropped out of law school to study singing, first with Emilio Terziani and then with the renowned vocal pedagogue Venceslao Persichini (who also taught Francesco Marconi, Antonio Magini-Coletti, Titta Ruffo and Giuseppe De Luca). Battistini worked, too, with the top-class conductor Luigi Mancinelli and the composer Augusto Rotoli, and he consulted an illustrious baritone of the previous generation, Antonio Cotogni, in an effort to refine his technique.
Most of the following information about Mattia Battistini’s performance venues, dates and roles is drawn from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera (second edition, 1980), edited by Harold Rosenthal and John Warrack, and The Record of Singing (Volume One, 1977), by Michael Scott.
A 22-year-old Battistini made his operatic début at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, as Alfonso in Donizetti’s La favorita on 11 December 1878. However, this date is erroneously given by many reference books and articles as correct, but reveals careless and repeated copying from faulty sources. It has been proven by the painstaking research of Jacques Chuilon that the date should most likely be replaced by Saturday, 9 November 1878. For full argumentation please see page 7 of the definitive Battistini biography Mattia Battistini, King of Baritones and Baritone of Kings, 2009 (The Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md, USA), translation by E. Thomas Glasow; also to be found on page 17 of the author’s original French edition Battistini, le dernier divo, 1996 (Editions Romillat, Paris).
During the first three years of his professional career he toured Italy, honing his voice and gaining invaluable experience by singing principal rôles in such varied operas as La forza del destino, Il trovatore, Rigoletto, Il Guarany, Gli Ugonotti, Dinorah, L’Africana, I Puritani, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aïda, and Ernani. He participated, too, in several operatic premières. In 1881 he went to Buenos Aires for the first time, touring South America for more than 12 months. On his return trip, he appeared in Barcelona and Madrid where he sang Figaro in Rossini’s comic masterpiece Il Barbiere di Siviglia. His success in this was enormous and it marked the beginning of his ascent to major operatic stardom.
In 1883, he undertook his first visit to the Royal Opera House at London’s Covent Garden, where he appeared as Riccardo in Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani in a stellar cast containing Marcella Sembrich, Francesco Marconi and Edouard de Reszke. He also sang opposite Adelina Patti, the leading soprano of her era, in other Covent Garden productions. In such exulted and entrenched company there was not much attention paid to a new, unheralded young baritone! However, he would receive much greater réclame in London during subsequent Covent Garden appearances in 1905-1906, when the now mature performer established himself as a darling of Edwardian-era high society due to his dashing vocalism and polished off-stage demeanour.
Unlike his initial London experience, when Battistini made his debut at the important Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1886, he scored an immediate triumph. Two years later, he once more sailed to Buenos Aires to fulfil a series of singing engagements; but this proved to be his last trans-Atlantic excursion, and he never appeared again in South America. He avoided North America, too, despite receiving overtures from the management of the New York Metropolitan Opera, where Battistini’s core repertoire was allocated in his absence to the Italian baritones Mario Ancona, Giuseppe Campanari, Antonio Scotti and, after 1908, Pasquale Amato.
Battistini is said to have developed a permanent horror of oceanic travel due to his adverse experiences on that particularly rough 1888 voyage to Buenos Aires. Eighteen Eighty-Eight was a memorable year for Battistini in another way, however, for it proved to be the year of his début at Italy’s foremost opera house—La Scala, Milan. La Scala’s audiences acclaimed him and he was re-engaged for the next season.

The Russian years.

Battistini contemplates Yorick’s skull as Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet. Photographed in 1911.
From 1892 onwards, Battistini established himself as an immense favourite with audiences at Russia’s two imperial theatres in Saint Petersburg and Moscow: the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi respectively. He returned to Russia regularly, appearing there for 23 seasons in total, and touring extensively elsewhere in eastern Europe, using Warsaw as his stepping-stone. He would journey to Warsaw, Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Odessa like a prince, travelling in his own private rail coach with a retinue of servants and innumerable trunks containing a vast stage wardrobe renowned for its elegance and lavishness. Indeed, the composer Jules Massenet was prepared to adjust the rôle of Werther for the baritone range, when Battistini elected to sing it in Saint Petersburg in 1902, such was the singer’s prestige.
The industrious Battistini also appeared with some regularity in Milan, Lisbon, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Paris (where he sang for the first time in 1907). But his many social connections in Russia, and the favour that he enjoyed with the imperial family and the nobility, ensured that Russia—more than perhaps even Italy—became his artistic home prior to the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914. The war led to the destruction, by the Bolsheviks in 1917, of the Tsarist regime and the aristocratic society which had enriched touring Italian opera stars like Battistini and his tenor compatriots Francesco Tamagno, Francesco Marconi and Angelo Masini. This history-shaping political development, coupled with Battistini’s refusal to sing in the Americas, meant that his career after the war’s conclusion in 1918 was confined to Western Europe.
Incidentally, Battistini’s choice of bride had befitted his esteemed social status in Tsarist Russia and the West: he married a Spanish noblewoman, Doña Dolores de Figueroa y Solís, who was the offspring of a marquis and a cousin of Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val.

Final years & death.

Battistini formed his own company of singers following the 1914-1918 war. He toured with them and appeared frequently in concerts and recitals. Everywhere that he performed, he was hailed as a miraculous survivor from a finer, less-Plebeian era of vocal attainment. Consequently, his musical career lasted for almost 50 years. He sang in England for the final time in 1924, and gave his last concert performance one year before his death. His voice was reportedly still steady, responsive and in good overall condition during this period, although it had diminished a little in size and his once silken timbre had grown drier in tone.
On the concert platform, Battistini remained trim and princely looking. He had developed heart disease in his latter years, however, and he collapsed during a tour of Central Europe. His last singing engagement occurred in Graz, Austria, on 17 October 1927. He was then aged almost 72. He withdrew to his estate at Collebaccaro di Contigliano, Rieti, dying there from heart failure a few months later—on 7 November 1928. His posthumous reputation remains high among voice connoisseurs and collectors of historical recordings, with a majority of them considering the lion-voiced Titta Ruffo (1877–1953) to be Battistini’s only rival for the title of the greatest Italian baritone singer on disc.