During the first decade and a half or so of the 20th century, a handful of singers whose careers had begun in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s stood in front of primitive recording devices and preserved a style of vocal performance practice that was, with the advent of verismo opera, gradually passing into extinction. One such artist was the Italian baritone Mattia Battistini, born on this day in 1856.
Battistini studied briefly with Venceslao Persichini (who also taught Antonio Magini-Coletti, Giuseppe de Luca and Titta Ruffo) and Eugenio Terziana before making his debut at the age of twenty-two in La Favorita at Rome’s Teatro Argentina. He traveled widely almost from the beginning of his career, including trips to South America in 1881-82 and 1889, but because he grew ever more fearful of crossing the Atlantic, he never sang in the United States. Although he initially appeared at Covent Garden in 1883, his most important successes there came in 1905-06 as Rigoletto, Valentin, Don Giovanni, Germont, and Amonasro. After his highly successful St. Petersburg 1893 debut in Thomas’s Hamlet, he visited Russia every season until 1914, where his interpretations of Onegin, Russlan, and Rubinstein’s Demon won him tremendous acclaim. Writing of one such performance in his memoirs, Sergei Levik, a professional baritone who eventually became a distinguished commentator on Russian productions, singers, and singing technique, noted that,
“Battistini was particulary rich in overtones which continued to sound long after he had ceased to sing. You saw that the singer had closed his mouth, but certain sounds still held you in their power. The unusually attractive timbre of his voice caressed the listener, as though enveloping him in warmth.”
Over the course of his fifty-year-long career, Battistini took on a wide variety of roles, including Renato, Posa, Simon Boccanegra, Iago, Scarpia, Tonio, Wolfram, Telramund, many of the great Bellini and Donizetti parts, and perhaps most interestingly, Werther, which Massenet revised especially for him. He made well over 100 recordings between 1902 and 1924, and in these we can hear a singer unmatched in terms of range, depth, breath control, vocal agility, and command of legato phrasing.
Here, then, is a baker’s dozen sampling of Mattia Battistini’s recorded legacy, spanning the years 1902 to 1912. If you’re looking for a few to start with, try #2, #3, #4, #10, and #13.
1. Eugenio Oneghin – “Si dell’imen la dolce cura” (rec.1902)
2. Don Giovanni – “Fin ch’han del vino” (rec.1902)
This recording of Don Giovanni’s “Champagne Aria” is famous not so much for Battistini’s performance, but rather for the cries of “Bis! Bis!” emanating from the small studio audience in attendance at the session.
3. Ernani – “O dei verd’anni miei” (rec.1906)
4. Ernani – “O sommo Carlo,” with Emilia Corsi, Luigi Colazza, and Aristodemo Sillich (rec.1906)
In November 1906, Battistini recorded several excerpts from Verdi’s Ernani. These are two of the finest selections in that group.
5. Don Giovanni – “Là ci darem la mano,” with Emilia Corsi (rec.1906)
Sure, this recording seems to challenge our current notions of “authentic” Mozart singing, and things do fall apart a bit toward the end, but who cares? This is such a wonderfully spontaneous performance that none of that seems to matter. I love the little pause Battistini takes in the recitative between the words “io voglio” (“I want”) and “sposar” (“to marry”).
6. La Favorita – “A tanto amor” (rec.1906)
7. Un Ballo in Maschera – “Eri tu” (rec.1906)
8. Werther – “Avrò su mio petto” (rec.1910)
9. Werther – “Ah non mi ridestar” (rec.1910)
10. Tosti – “Amour, amour” (rec.1911)
11. Pagliacci – “Prologo” (rec.1911)
12. La Traviata – “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” (rec.1912)
13. Macbetto – “Pietà, rispetto, onore” (rec.1912)
In the recitative, Battistini delivers the opening line, “Perfidi! All’Anglo contro me v’unite!” (“Traitors! With the English you unite against me!”) with just the right amount of bite, and wrenches almost every last bit of sound out of the word “inardita” (“drained”) at the very end. And how about that fantastic high A flat on the penultimate note of the aria!