Four years after their splendid debut on Broadway, Shakespeare’s Globe returns to the beautiful Belasco Theater with a show that in a few glorious ways resembles their spectacular Twelfth Night. Their production of Farinelli and the King, an original play by Claire Van Kampen based on an odd true story about an opera singer whose music helped heal a mad king, gives us the gift of another opulent set and authentic-looking period costumes, and of another fine British cast again starring the always watchable Mark Rylance.
If Van Kampen’s script unsurprisingly falls far short of Shakespeare, Farinelli and the King also features what should count as a secret weapon — the singing of Iestyn Davies, a countertenor who provides what surely is the closest possible version in modern times to the arias sublimely rendered by the superstar castrati of the 18th century such as Farinelli.
When we first see King Phillip V of Spain, he is speaking to a gold fish. The king is uncertain whether he is awake or dreaming, and later both hits and bites his wife, Queen Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove.) The people around him have largely given up hope that anything can be done about his mental illness. The chief minister of Spain, Don Sebastian De La Cuadra (Edward Peel) schemes to depose him. So the Queen travels to London in June, 1737, goes backstage during the intermission of a performance of the famed Farinelli, and hands a purse full of gold to theater manager John Rich (Colin Hurley) to bring Farinelli to Spain. Rich refuses, repeatedly, although it’s only at the very end of the scene, when she gives him her address, that he realizes that he’s been speaking to royalty. In the next scene, we are back in the palace in Madrid, where Farinelli is now employed to serenade the king one-on-one. The results are immediate and remarkable, life changing for both the king and the singer.
A note in the program tells us that many of the details in Farinelli and the King have been verified as fact, although the playwright “has taken poetic license to invent or conflate.” But too often, the license van Kampen takes is more prosaic than poetic, as with the example of the scene between the theater impresario and the queen. In her debut as a playwright, van Kampen sometimes makes choices that are more cute or convenient than convincing.
But the playwright, who is Rylance’s wife, is also an experienced musical director and composer, responsible for the incidental music in dozens of Shakespeare’s Globe productions and several on Broadway (including the Twelfth Night of 2013, played on Elizabethan instruments like sackbuts and shawms.) She deserves credit for how well the music, mostly Handel arias, is worked into the play. These arias rarely last more than a minute or two, and those that are slightly longer (Cara Sposa and Venti Turbini, from Handel’s Rinaldo) are masterfully set up to reflect, and enhance, an emotional moment between the characters. The singing is accompanied by an exquisite group of musicians on harpsichord, violin and viola, cello and bass, theorbo and baroque guitar. This is a play involving opera that (like Amadeus) can appeal to people indifferent to the art form, or even actively put off by it.
Two different performers portray Farinelli. Sam Crane plays the modest person behind the celebrity Farinelli, the stage name of Carlo Broschi, and shares a melancholy with the king. (There is an interesting scene in which the regally attired celebrity and his royal majesty compare their plights.) Carlo never got over the shock of his composer brother having castrated him at age 10 in order to preserve his pure child’s voice. Crane has only a speaking role; when it comes time for Farinelli to sing, Iestyn Davies, dressed identically, stands beside Crane. Perhaps this was done for practical reasons (maybe, to put this rudely, Davies can’t act, and no actor can sing like Davies.) But it comes off as an inspired theatrical device, especially in a monologue that Crane delivers recalling his character’s first-ever public performance, to show how detached an artist can feel from his art, and from the accolades that accrue because of it. It helps explain what might seem to some otherwise largely unfathomable — why Farinelli (the one in history as well as the one on stage) gave up public performances and world-wide acclaim in order to administer to a single individual, albeit a monarch.
Farinelli and the King may not offer any eye-opening insights into the power of music to heal, but the show itself feels restorative – the music just part of its sumptuousness. The multi-tiered set (with seating on an upper tier for some members of the audience) is of dark wood etched in gold and festooned with red brocade, with pre-electric chandeliers that are lowered in front of us, so that the performers can light the candles in them.
Mark Rylance, who has won three Tony Awards (for Twelfth Night, Jerusalem, and Boeing-Boeing), may not win his fourth in his role as King Philip. His mad king flourishes are strange and mannered. But he is also, and more often, sad and puzzled and lost. In any case, this is an actor who can somehow squeeze a meal out of the most throwaway line. In the second act, when he’s moved out of the palace to the countryside with only queen and crooner for company, forcing them to grow and cook their own food, he admonishes the Queen for reaping too soon what she’s sown. “Vegetables have rights, dear. Look at them.”
Farinelli and the King is on stage at the Belasco (111 West 44th Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10036) through March 25, 2018.
Farinelli and the King
by Claire van Kampen, directed by John Dove, designed by Jonathan Fensom, with musical arrangements also by Claire van Kampen, Lighting design by Paul Russell. Featuring Sam Crane as Farinelli, Iestyn Davies
as Farinelli’s voice, Huss Garbiya as Doctor José Cervi, Melody Grove as Isabella Farnese, Lucas Hall as Jethro, Colin Hurley as John Rich, Edward Peel as De La Cuadra, and Mark Rylance as Philippe V. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell