An Italian at the Court of Queen Victoria: a performance by Barbara Gentili at the BSR, June 2021

As Covid restrictions were modified, the BSR was able to begin to use its Lecture Theatre again. On 15 June, a small audience gathered for An Italian at the Court of Queen Victoria performed by soprano Barbara Gentili, pianist Maurizio Carnelli and narrator Ivan Hewett.

Barbara Gentili, Maurizio Carnelli and Ivan Hewett performing at the BSR in June 2021.

At its core were a selection of the charmingly sentimental and nostalgic songs of Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846–1916), who enjoyed enormous fame as a song composer in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in London where he settled in the late 1870s. The songs were woven into the story of Tosti’s life, told in words and images, beginning with his first successes as a singer, composer and singing teacher in Rome, where his talent was praised by no less a figure than Giuseppe Verdi. Tosti moved to London to escape the scandal caused by his relationship with Queen Margherita of Savoy and spent a good part of the following 38 years in England serving as the singing master to the Royal Family and organising musical entertainments for Queen Victoria.

“For ever and for ever”, caricature of Francesco Paolo Tosti by Ape in Vanity Fair, 1885.

To set Tosti’s more gentle style in relief, Barbara and Maurizio also performed songs by Tosti’s famous contemporaries Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo, who valued Tosti’s contacts in London (‘a Londra, Tosti è tutto’ said Pietro Mascagni).

In the musical soirées he arranged for the Queen, Tosti assembled performers of international renown and brought to Windsor Castle the latest Italian operas, such as Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana or Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. His genius for melodic freshness was matched by his astonishing talent at networking. Tosti operated as a ‘Mr Fixit’ for performers and composers coming to London, including Caruso, Calvé, Grieg, Mascagni, Puccini and many others. Despite his devotion to London, his knighthood, and his British citizenship, Tosti remained close to his poet and artist compatriots, as the long-lasting friendships with poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and painter Francesco Paolo Michetti demonstrate.

From left: A. Franchetti, G. d’Annunzio, G. Puccini, F. P. Tosti, F. P. Michetti, C. Barbella, G. Ricordi. Milan 1906. From the archive of the Instituto Nazionale Tostiano.

The same programme was given at the St Marylebone Festival in London on 21 July 2021.