Battistini was born into a prosperous family of physicians and received a classical education at private schools. Though he showed musical promise, his family wished him to pursue medicine or law as a career. To the dismay of his mother however, he studied singing instead, firstly with Emilio Terziani and later with Venceslao Persichini, who also taught Titta Ruffo and Giuseppe De Luca. He was also a pupil of the conductor Luigi Mancinelli and the composer Augusto Rotoli. Battistini’s operatic début came with Alfonso/La favorita in December 1878 at Rome’s Teatro Argentina and during the next three years he toured Italy, singing in a broad repertoire that included Amonasro/Aida, di Luna/Il trovatore, Don Carlo/Ernani, Riccardo/I puritani and the title rôle in Rigoletto. He spent most of 1881 touring thoughout South America, scoring success on his return as Figaro/Il barbiere di Siviglia in Barcelona and Madrid: his international career was now launched. In 1883 Battistini first appeared at Covent Garden, singing opposite legendary figures of the golden age such as Patti, Sembrich and Edouard de Reszke; not surprisingly little attention was paid to him on this occasion. During 1888 he made his début at La Scala, Milan, as Nelusko/L’Africaine, and travelled again to South America (for the last time, due to his horror of sea travel).
From 1892 Battistini became a favourite in Imperial Russia, singing regularly in Moscow and St Petersburg as well as Warsaw, which was then part of Russia. He would travel across the country in his private train, carrying with him his large and lavish operatic wardrobe. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 ended this relationship with the east, which was even more important than Battistini’s standing in Italy where he was known as ‘La gloria d’Italia’ and ‘Il re dei baritoni’. Battistini also appeared in the major cities of Europe, notably Berlin, Budapest, Milan, Paris, Prague and Vienna, making a big impression (unlike in 1883) when he apeared at Covent Garden in the 1905–1906 season, singing Amonasro, Don Giovanni, Germont père/La traviata, Rigoletto and Valentin/Faust. After the end of World War I he continued to tour with his own opera company, retiring from the stage in 1924. He also sang in concert: in fact it was during a concert tour that he collapsed as a result of heart disease. He gave his final concert at Graz in Austria in October 1927.
One of the last great exponents of the bel canto style of singing, as opposed to the more explosive verismo style adopted by younger rivals such as Caruso and Ruffo, Battistini sang with a seamless legato, phrasing the vocal line with great taste, and was a master of elegantly applied rubato. He possessed a vocal agility that still astounds. His range extended into the tenor register (Massenet rearranged the title part of Werther for him), but was weak at the bottom. He made 120 recordings, mainly for The Gramophone Company, between 1902 and 1924. Despite these all being recorded with the acoustic process, they are sufficient to amply demonstrate Battistini’s art. As he himself said, ‘My school is in my recordings.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).