He was born in Rome and brought up largely at Collebaccaro di Contigliano, a village near Rieti where his parents had an estate. The Battistinis were ancestrally from Rieti, ancient capital of the Sabines, and Mattia Battistini always looked like an ancient Roman, with his imposing physique, high forehead and monumental Roman nose.
They were a well-to-do family, long in the field of medicine. His grandfather, Giovanni, and uncle, Raffaele, were personal physicians to the Pope and his father, Cavaliere Luigi Battistini, a professor of anatomy at the University of Rome. They would have preferred him to take up a career in medicine or law, and sent him to old and exclusive preparatory schools (the Collegio Bandinelli and later the Istituto dell' Apollinare) where he got a classical education, but from the beginning Mattia showed great musical talent, so, to the dismay of his mother, née Elena Tommasi, he dropped out of law school to study singing, first with Emilio Terziani and then with the renowned Venceslao Persichini (who also taught Francesco Marconi, Titta Ruffo and Giuseppe de Luca). Battistini also worked with the famous conductor Luigi Mancinelli and the composer Augusto Rotoli.
In the first three years he toured Italy singing in rôles from La forza del destino, Il trovatore, Rigoletto, Il Guarany, Gli Ugonotti, Dinorah, L’Africana, I Puritani, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aïda, and Ernani, as well as taking part in several premières.
In 1881 he went to Buenos Aires for the first time, touring South America for more than a year. 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 was the beginning of his real popularity as a great star.
In 1883 he visited Covent Garden where he appeared as Riccardo in Puritani opposite Marcella Sembrich, Francesco Marconi, Edouard de Reszke. He also sang with Adelina Patti. In such company, there was not much attention paid to a new young baritone! He would receive much greater réclame in London in later years. He did have a fine success at his first appearances at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, in 1886.
Beginning in 1892, he early established himself as a great favourite at both the Imperial theatres at Saint-Petersburg and Moscow, the Marie and the Bolshoi, and returned to Russia regularly for 23 seasons, touring extensively, using Warsaw as his base. He used to travel to Warsaw, Saint-Petersburg, Moscow and Odessa like a prince, in his own private railroad coach, with innumerable trunks containing a vast stage wardrobe renowned for its elegance and lavishness.
The industrious Battistini also appeared with some regularity in Paris (for the first time in 1907), Lisbon, Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Budapest. But his many social connections in Russia and the favour he enjoyed with the Imperial family and nobility meant that Russia, more than perhaps even Italy, was his artistic home until the outbreak of the Great War which destroyed Imperial Russia, and the society which had nurtured and enriched stars like Battistini.
Battistini was married to a Spanish noblewoman, doña Dolores de Figueroa y Solís, daughter of a marquis and a cousin of Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val.
After the War he toured with his own company and appeared frequently in concert, acclaimed everywhere as a miraculous survival from a finer, greater era. His career lasted almost 50 years. He gave his last concert performance one year before his death, his voice still in very fine condition. The trim and princely-looking Battistini, however, had developed heart disease in his last years, and collapsed during a concert tour of Mitteleuropa. His last appearance was at Graz, Austria, on 17 October 1927. He was almost 72.
He withdrew to his property at Collebaccaro di Contigliano, Rieti, and died there from heart failure a few months later, on 7 November 1928.
"My school is in my recordings": thus the great singer about his 120 published sides.
His first Red Seal essays were made in Warsaw in 1902. He then (1906-1924) recorded extensively and, with two exceptions, exclusively for the Gramophone Co Ltd and associated companies. His records were issued in the USA by Victor. Battistini's last recording session took place in February, 1924. He unfortunately made no electrical recordings.
This singer is found on many historical vocal compilations.
Mattia Battistini was one of the greatest singers and even a cursory acquaintance with his many records will make it clear why.
He probably was the last master of the bel canto style, in which purely musical means are employed to represent drama, as opposed to the verismo style, in which quotidian (prosaic, spoken) means of expressing emotion supplant the music.
Amongst his armory of techniques were the perfect blending of registers, the fil de voce, rubato and legato (perhaps the most important). With Plancon and Bonci (the latter arguably, though he was taken as a sort of lyric ideal by the critic William James Henderson in his famous essay, "Get Rich Quick Singing"), he represented the twilight of the art of male lyric (bel canto) singing, whose nightfall was illuminated by the ascending stars of Caruso and Ruffo, amongst others.
His records provide a window to the singing practice of the early nineteenth century, as well as the style of singing that much Romantic opera music was written for.
Perhaps his most revealing recording is that of "Non mi ridestar," the Italian version of "Pourquoi me reveiller," the famous tenor aria from Massenet's Werther. Massenet set down the role for baritone in a special version for Battistini, harking back to an age when composers wrote their roles for the talents of one singer, and a singer of Battistini's stature could make anything correct. Other touchstones of male vocal performance by Battistini include his aria from Tannhauser (the most brilliant display of portamento possible) and his set of scenes from Ernani, arguably his greatest role.
Boscardini, Elsa , of the Istituto Eugenio Cirese of Rieti, has published a number of pamphlets about Battistini:
as well as an illustrated, full-length biography of Battistini's wife: Boscardini, Elsa (1999): Dolores Figueroa y Solís, la esposa de Mattia Battistini. Rieti, Istituto Eugenio Cirese (in Spanish)
Celletti, Rodolfo (1996): The History of Bel Canto. Oxford & London, Oxford University Press
Celletti, Rodolfo (1964): Le grandi voci. Rome, Istituto per la collaborazione culturale,
Chuilon, Jacques (1996): "Battistini Le Dernier Divo". Paris, Romillat
Fracassini, G. (1914): Mattia Battistini. Milano, Barbini
Karl Josef Kutsch and Leo Riemens, Editors (2000): Großes Sängerlexikon Basel, Saur
Lancellotti, A (1942): Le voci d' oro. Rome, Palombi
Monaldi, G (1929): Cantanti Celebri. Rome, Tiber
Palmeggiani, Francesco (1977): Mattia Battistini, il re dei baritoni Milano, Stampa d' Oggi Editrice, 1949 (reprinted with A Discography, W.R. Moran, Editor. New York, Arno Press)