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The King of Baritones – Mattia Battistini

Mattia Battistini (1856 – 1928) began his career while Puccini was still a teenager and Guiseppe Verdi was alive and composing. He sang for 50 years, appearing with such operatic greats as Marcella Sembrich, Jean de Reszke, and Adelina Patti and gave his last concert (in good voice) the year before his death.

One of the great singers of his or any other generation, Battistini had stylistic elegance and an extraordinary beauty of phrasing that carried forward the 19th century Bel Canto singing style into the 20th century world of Caruso and Ruffo. He was a lyric baritone with a middle register of extraordinary beauty but a weak lower register. In fact, he was known to transpose low notes up an octave. He probably could be classified as a “baritenor”, a category that existed in the mid-19th century.

He was born in Rome and raised in the village of Contigliano, just outside Rome. He dropped out of law school to study singing, studying with several teachers and made his professional debut in 1878 at the age of twenty two. He was immediately popular and sang throughout Italy before traveling to South America, then Spain, and in 1883 Covent Garden in London.

Battistini never appeared in America, having developed a great fear of sailing after a violent sea storm on a trip to South America, and instead concentrated on Europe and on Russia, returning to Russia for 23 seasons, singing in Italian while the rest of the cast sang in Russian. He became a great favorite of the Russian aristocracy and a close friend of the Tsar. In fact, his first recordings for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company (1902) were made in Warsaw. He married a Spanish noblewoman, the daughter of a Marquis and the cousin of a Cardinal.

He was physically strong and often sang every night of the week, sometimes giving thirty or more encores after a recital. He became so popular and his singing so admired that the composer Jules Massenet re-wrote the tenor lead in his opera “Werther” so Battistini could sing it as a baritone for it’s Moscow premiere.

After the Russian revolution in 1917, with the destruction of the Tsarist regime and his fear of traveling on the sea, Battistini confined his career to singing in Western Europe and created his own company of singers, touring for the next ten years and occasionally appearing as a guest artist at La Scala and other opera houses and giving concerts and recitals. He did, however, agree to several short voyages to England for appearances at Covent Garden. Battistini remained trim and princely looking throughout his life, but his heart began to weaken as he aged and he collapsed during a European tour in 1927, giving his last concert when he was almost 72. He died less than a year later.

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