Mattia Battistini (February 27, 1856 – November 7, 1928) was an Italian operatic baritone. He was called “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.
Battistini attended the Collegio Bandinelli and later the Istituto dell’ Apollinare. Battistini dropped out of law school to study with Emilio Terziani (who taught composition) and with Venceslao Persichini (professor of singing) at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia—then the Liceo Musicale of Rome. Battistini worked with conductor Luigi Mancinelli and the composer Augusto Rotoli, and he consulted with baritone Antonio Cotogni, in an effort to refine his technique.
A 22-year-old Battistini made his operatic debut at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, as Alfonso in Donizetti’s La Favorita on November 9, 1878. During the first three years of his professional career he toured Italy, honing his voice and gaining invaluable experience by singing principal roles 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 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 . He also sang opposite Adelina Patti, the leading soprano of her era, in other Covent Garden productions.
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.
The Russian years
From 1892 onward, Battistini established himself as an immense favorite with audiences at Russia’s two imperial theaters 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, traveling 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 role 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 favor 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. 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.
Final years and death
Battistini formed his own company of singers following the 1914–1918 war. He toured with them and appeared frequently in concerts and recitals. 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.
His last singing engagement took place in Graz, Austria, on October 17, 1927. He withdrew to his estate at Collebaccaro di Contigliano, Rieti, dying there from heart failure on November 7, 1928.