- Giovanna Sestini: An Italian Opera Singer in Eighteenth-Century London by Audrey Carpenter
“Giovanna Sestini? Who?” These are probably reasonable responses since Giovanna Sestini (1749–1814) is one of those figures whose life-story is shelved by history somewhere between “little known” and “forgotten”. Thus you will be forgiven for not knowing that a précis of her story has already appeared in Grove Music [End Page 185] Online (Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson, 2002, rev. 2015), and in only slightly more detail within the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Audrey Carpenter (2014), the author of the volume discussed here. So, to answer the questions here, even more briefly, Giovanna began her musical life in Florence, she continued it in Lisbon and there married José Stocqueler, descendant of a Hamburg trading family. They moved to London to suit both their careers, where for some years Giovanna became a regular performer on the stage of the King’s Theatre. She had a versatile singing voice and was most successful as a singer–actress, best known in her day for buffa roles, although equally affecting in serious roles. Giovanna subsequently worked in Dublin, then at the London Pantheon, and latterly in Edinburgh. Through-out her life, she seems to have been much admired by colleagues and audiences alike, and enjoyed a contented marriage blessed with children.
And at this point we might also ask “Who is Audrey Carpenter?” The question is an important one since it goes some way to explaining the success of this new biography. Carpenter gained a London University Ph.D. in Chemistry and had a long and successful career at Imperial College London. Upon retirement, she successfully undertook a second Ph.D. (Loughborough, English, 2010) investigating the life of the scientist John-Theophilus Desaguliers (1683–1744); the Ph.D. subsequently became a successful biography (John Theophilus Desaguliers: A Natural Philosopher, Engineer and Freemason in Newtonian England [London: Continuum, 2011]). So we can see that when it comes to biography and the eighteenth century Carpenter has good form. Indeed Audrey Carpenter has a remarkable skill in managing facts, which I ascribe to her decades-long scientific career. Not only does she spare no energy to follow hunches and leads, but also with consummate ease, she assiduously documents the findings and sifts the key facts for her reader. Here the sifted and documented facts are superbly digested across eighteen short chapters.
Carpenter’s research method is time-honoured, just “here is everything I found in the library, in chronological order”, a straightforward and reliable approach but one that so often produces worthy, pedestrian academic digests; but not here. Carpenter is a gifted narrator, for although she works to a strict chronological framework it is clothed in a literary manner that is both succinct and stylish. In telling this story there are no spare words, no suppositions, no irksome hyperbole or “informed guesses”, and no time for ennui; just the surviving evidence speaking for itself, compelling and pacey.
Giovanna Sestini’s life is admirable and impressive, and it seems clear to me that Carpenter really enjoyed her research and wants us to enjoy reading about Giovanna and her world. Nonetheless, why has Carpenter chosen Giovanna Sestini, this character located somewhere between “little known” and “forgotten”? It seems that Giovanna was one of Carpenter’s distant relations and one that she only came to know about while carrying out her doctoral research on Desaguliers. Finding that there was no existing detailed biography, and with Desaguliers out of the way, Carpenter has written one.
Sestini’s career is in itself of little immediate scholarly concern today, since it holds no great revelations either to significantly augment current musical scholarship or to derail it. And yet for all the lack of any “revelation”, I think this book has value, not perhaps for advanced scholars of the period (unless for some reason they need to know all about Giovanna Sestini), but rather for those students of British cultural history who are making their...