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" (www.cantabile-subito.de)
at 12:31 PM