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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mattia Battistini: King of The Bel Canto Baritones

Mattia Battistini (1856-1928) was born in Rome and brought up in Contigliano, a village near Rome. His father was a professor of anatomy at Rome University. Mattia showed great talent for music even as a very young man, and was soon sent to study with Venceslao Persichini, who was also the teacher of Francesco Marconi, Titta Ruffo and Giuseppe de Luca. While still a student, he sang in public, and debuted in Donizetti's La Favorita in 1878, where he enjoyed an immediate success. In the next three years he toured Italy and appeared in La Forza del Destino, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, Il Guarany, Gli Ugonotti, Dinorah, L'Africaine, I Puritani, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aida, and Ernani. To say that he got off to a quick and brilliant start is classic understatement! He enjoyed success wherever he toured, and in 1883 he made his Covent Garden debut. To the best of my knowledge, he never sang in America, which was still, in the European view, a bit on the provincial side of things, as was Australia. He oriented his career in the direction of Eastern Europe; most particularly Imperial Russia, where he was a great favorite, and a friend of the Tsar's family. He returned to Russia regularly for 23 seasons, and made his first recordings there in 1902. The Russian aristocracy acclaimed him above all other singers. His career spanned 50 years, and he was commonly called "The King of Baritones." His reputation was enormous, and his career extraordinarily successful. *

Battistini did not sound like the baritones of today, who are, virtually without exception, verismo singers, with dark, powerful voices that are often not very flexible and tend to a rather monochromatic intensity of volume, well suited to the Verdi and Puccini roles, but perhaps less so to the kinds of romantic operas that were popular in the 19th century. Battistini can sound like a tenor on occasion, but it is simply the open sound and the lightened volume. Because he was a bel canto trained singer, his voice evidences great flexibility and range, and his pronunciation, like that of the bel canto tenors, is extremely clear. Battistini was an intelligent singer, extremely musical by nature, and he took the dramatic end of opera very seriously. He was by all accounts a superb actor, with innumerable costumes that were historically accurate. His Italian is very refined, and the open and closed e's and o's are everywhere observed, and are capable of creating the effect of cultured gentility (if the role is heroic) or explosive vulgarity, if demanded by the role. So great was the esteem in which he was held that Massenet actually re-wrote Werther so that the title role could be sung by Battistini. Here is Werther's famous aria "Pourquoi me reveiller:" Prepare yourselves: first, for a different sounding baritone voice, and secondarily for a re-written aria that only occasionally sounds like the one we all know:

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto:) This is another world. All the signs of bel canto training are there, right down to the rapid-fire vibrato. One can, however, very quickly get used to it, and that is when the advantages of this kind of singing become apparent—the elegance, the drama, the pronunciation, the style, the musicality. Here is a famous baritone aria that makes for good comparison with today's singing style: Valentine's "Avant de quitter ses lieux:" (Please notice his costumes, for which he was renowned)

I find this rendition to be particularly engaging. The singing, from a musical and stylistic point of view, is absolutely perfect, and his voice is most communicative. This is singing of great authenticity and elegance.

Good as his rendition of music from this period is, it becomes even better when we move back to Mozart's time. Here is Don Giovanni's serenade, which is a perfect showcase for Battistini's particular talents.  This recording is from 1902, and is one of his very first:

Simply delightful! And I always feel obliged to point out that Mozart died in 1791, only 65 years before Battistini was born. This means that at least some of the teachers he would have had at the conservatory would have been born very close to Mozart's day, and would themselves have been trained by people absolutely from that period. It makes sense to think that the styles of Mozart's time were still well known. After all, we are very much aware of the musical comedy styles and practices of Richard Rogers' work from the 1940's.

Traditionally, styles and vogues come, and displace former ones, which can easily be forgotten. Happily, however, photos and phonograph recordings, now representing a considerable history themselves, are here to remind us that today's styles are not eternal, and in the case of opera, historical material shows that musical and vocal styles near or at the time of the opera's composition—which were certainly in the minds of the composers as they wrote—tell us another story.

• I would like to acknowledge the diligent work of Tim, at dantitustimshu, who provided the material that made this essay possible. Tim is one of the most serious musical historians and collectors on Youtube, and I am greatly indebted to him for the biographical references and pictures, and the playlist from which the musical selections were taken. I refer readers to his channel, which is a brilliant collection of historical material. I also alert the interested reader to a classic reference site for biographical material: "Cantabile-Subito: A Site for Collectors of Great Singers of the Past" (


JD Hobbes said...

If I close my eyes, I must say that the rapid vibrato reminds me so much of Lawrence Tibbett. Do you hear that also?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Interesting observation. Yes, I can see what you mean. As an English-speaking singer, Tibbett comes by at least a bit of the open phonation that Battistini arrived at through Bel Canto training. I always respond positively to the faster vibrato, because it means, effectively, that the singer is singing on the thinner edges of the cords, which is where squillo and carrying power come from. Yes, good comment. Thank you.

LWS said...

Again, I really enjoyed your commentary and selection of Videos. As a big fan of Werther I was really moved by his rendition. I've only ever heard it sung by lyric tenors such as the great Alfredo Kraus. It seemed very strange (but nevertheless thrilling) to hear this sung with an opulent baritonal colour.

I will definately study him further. I am glad to say there are quite a few recordings available of him as MP3 downloads which is a rarity for such an early singer.

Thank you again for bringing to my attention such a beautiful singer.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. Yes, I enjoyed hearing the altered Pourquoi me reveillier also. It's especially interesting that Massenet thought so much of Battistini that he re-wrote the part. That doesn't happen very often. There are probably some other examples, but none come to mind at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Hi Edmund,
Simply superb! The astute and insightful analysis, especially the part on Battistini's vocal style and technique as well as his standing in the history of opera and singing could not have come from any other. Moreover, please allow me to express my warmest thanks to you for your kind acknowledgement. All we unanimously aim for in our endeavor is to make the incomparable art of this great singer and Golden Age giant known to as many people as possible, especially those who are yet to discover what a treasure he is. At the same time, as a YouTube friend of ours, Candy@Kievest has pointed out: "there are a number of 'celebrity' baritones singing today who would do well to listen to this astounding historic recording! [referring to Battistini's recording of Valentine's aria from Gounod's Faust] Aside from having the physiogamy of a Roman nobleman, Maestro Battistini had the kind of voice & bel canto artistry for which Romantic music was written. His rubato, legato & portamento were peerless for his time. In this historic gem, he is nobility & courage itself with the drama rooted in the voice, phrasing & dynamic expression."

Thank you so much again for your wonderful work and hope this would help bring about more awareness and greater appreciation of this great singer's art, which is representative of an age with a culture and aesthetics that are fascinatingly different from those of current times.

All best wishes,

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my friend, for your lovely comments, and please accept my thanks once again for the brilliant work you did bringing this wonderful singer to light again for the discriminating Youtube viewer. The article may have my face on it, but it was your hands, and hard work, that made the material accessible in the first place. You are contributing greatly to raising the level of music research on Youtube.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great article, Sir Edmund. He was an absolutely brilliant singer, a real King. I heard and read many comments on Battistini, but without such interesting details like these you gave in your article.
/…innumerable costumes that were historically accurate./
As I understand, artists in those days bought or even designed costumes themselves. Directors didn’t control that. Sobinov designed the famous costume of Lensky himself too. They say that his success in the role partly was a result of his beautiful costume, which made a very romantic and young Lensky. Other singers often looked less elegant in the role, or had mustaches and beards, which made them look too old. I read how the great tenor Angelo Masini sang the Duke of Mantua in Moscow and appeared on the stage in his own coat and a scarf above the costume of the Duke. A stagehand appeared with him too. Masini was slightly ill, that’s why he wore warm clothes. He took off his coat and the scarf , gave them to the stagehand and started to sing:). He sang brilliantly, but his coat was described as an example of disrespect of the theater:) Battistini’s appearance was very noble and impressive, and he definitely respected theater very much.

His version of Werther is extraordinary and it doesn’t sound strange, perhaps because his voice is so flexible. He was a real Werther, though with lower voice, and sounded as a young romantic hero, though low voices usually seem “older”.
/It's that delightful! And I always feel obliged to point out that Mozart died in 1791, only 65 years before Battistini was born./
Yes, it’s brilliant. Pure Mozart. I would have not noticed his “a’s, if you didn’t write about them. Very interesting. Stanislavsky loved to talk with his students about Battistini’s diction .


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my friend, for a brilliant and informative comment. I was especially interested to hear that Stanislavsky was so impressed with Battistini's diction. That was one of the very first things that struck me when I heard him for the first time. I understood every single word, which was just as clear as it could be. He must have been a wonderful actor. He certainly was enormously respected in his day, and he absolutely loved Russia, where he spent so much time.

Anonymous said...

May I bring to your attention that in the third recording of Battistini featured here, it's actually Don Giovanni's serenade, not Leporello's. As a matter of fact, it's the title role of Don Giovanni in the Mozart opera that Battistini sang on stage. He never sang Leporello (normally sung by a bass or bass-baritone with a strong lower range) due to the fact that his lower register was relatively weak.

Edmund StAustell said...

Whoops! Right you are! Slip of the old fingers there! Must have been REAL early on a Sunday morning when I let that one slip by! Thanks for catching that--I appreciate it, and I'll correct it.

Gerhard Santos said...

MOLTO BELLO!!1 Thank you my friend for sharing this Valuable Biographical information. Thank you also for your Wonderful Web site and Rare Collections From GREAT OPERA SINGERS. Thank you and Have a Beautiful week ! Always Take Care !More Blessing to come and *GOD BLESS*

Ian Clerget said...

"Battistini did not sound like the baritones of today, who are, virtually without exception, verismo singers, with dark, powerful voices that are often not very flexible and tend to a rather monochromatic intensity of volume, well suited to the Verdi and Puccini roles, but perhaps less so to the kinds of romantic operas that were popular in the 19th century."

This is a great observation. I've often thought that many of the "baritones" performing today (or at least men listed as baritones in the cast of an opera) are actually "bass-baritones," and are not truly baritones at all, but a type of bass. It might also help explain why men such as Fischer-Dieskau, Prey, and Hampson don't sound like other guys like Hvorostovsky, d'Arcangelo, and Terfel, when they are all listed as "baritone" when they perform in operas.