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Farinelli and the King




                               By Ron Cohen


With the nonpareil actor Mark Rylance heading the cast and a generous helping of ear-filling Baroque music by George Frederick Handel, Farinelli and the King, Claire van Kampen’s historical drama, brings a very distinctive and ultra-elegant flavor to the Broadway season.

If the name Farinelli doesn’t ring a bell, I’ll fill you in. He was a famed 18th Century Italian-born castrato opera singer, whose gorgeous voice was the result of his being castrated at the age of ten. The “King” of the title is Philippe V of Spain, whose long reign during the first half of the 1700s produced some good stuff like tax code reform. (Let’s hope it wasn’t as controversial as the stuff they’re cooking up for us in Washington right now.) Philippe’s years, however, were also marked by prolonged fits of depression and behavior that could well be labeled madness.


The play tells how Philippe’s wife, the devoted and loving Isabella, brings Farinelli to Madrid with the hope that his singing will help relieve the king’s mental problems.   And does it ever work. The two men connect in a way that bespeaks the power of music and the human voice, Philippe calmed by what he hears and Farinelli finding fulfillment in the way Philippe listens and reacts. Van Kampen’s script is a moving demonstration of that power as well as the ability of human personalities to impact on one another, finding elements of themselves in each other.


Furthermore, Philippe decides that with the aid of Farinelli’s voice and a move to an uncluttered life in the forest, he will be able to hear “the music of the spheres.” And the months spent in the forest are a joyful rejuvenating time. The music of the spheres may well be on the verge of being heard, until the Philippe-Isabella-Farinelli thing threatens to turn into a romantic triangle. And it’s here that van Kampen’s story becomes just a wee bit muddled in a familiar turn of events. It’s not exactly soap opera, but it has a mechanical echo.


Nevertheless, the play drives on to a moving conclusion. Any potholes in the writing are pretty much overcome by the theatrical richness evident in both the acting and design of this production, which comes from London’s Shakespeare’s Globe, where Rylance was artistic director from 1995 to 2005.


Under John Dove’s knowing direction, Farinelli and the King is a production that fairly vibrates with imaginative touches, embraced fully by the cast. 


Rylance much of the time makes the mad monarch an irresistible charmer, whether he’s talking to a goldfish or throwing non-sequiturs at his Chief Minister (an appropriately crusty Edward Peel) and his doctor (Huss Garbiya). But there are moments when Philippe’s condition unleashes a white-hot fury that threatens to singe the stage. It’s another great performance, filled with surprising turns, from Rylance, whose resume already boasts three Tony Awards and an Oscar.


Farinelli also comes to compelling life in the performance of Sam Crane as a man whose fame meant nothing until he found the singular audience of the mad king of Spain. In one of the productions’ many theatrical riches, the singing voice of Farinelli is that of the countertenor Iestyn Davies. (At select performances, James Hall takes over the role.)


Van Kampen states in a program note: “It is not possible, nor should it be, to hear the extraordinary – and unearthly – nature of the castrato voice anymore.” Nevertheless, Davies’ negotiation of Handel’s undulating melodies is pretty much guaranteed to hold you spellbound. 


When singing, Davies appears on stage costumed similarly to Crane, often alongside him, and the relationship between the two – two actors but one soul -- can be felt across the footlights.



Another key element of the production is Melody Grove’s portrayal of Isabella. Against the eccentricities of Philippe, she is a warm and comforting presence, almost like a steaming cup of English Breakfast, although the character herself is Italian. Her most obvious Italian characteristic is her love of opera. That love is beautifully expressed in the final scene, when she visits the Covent Garden Opera House in London and meets once more with the opera impresario (Colin Hurley) from whom she stole Farinelli years before.


Throughout, the production exudes a unique richness of style, from the period production design of Jonathan Fensom, lit with the help of multitudes of candles by Paul Russell and the grand musical arrangements by van Kampen, played by a crew of seven musicians, sometime visible, sometimes not on the multi-level set. The set further is embellished by the presence of audience members seated on its periphery.



If there’s a feeling of affection and great care being lavished on this show, it may well have to do with the fact that van Kampen and Rylance are married. But that affection is also evident throughout the company, and eventually it spreads through the audience as well.


Broadway play

Playing at the Belasco Theatre

111 West 44th Street

212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400

Playing until March 25