By Ron Cohen
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.
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.
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
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.
Dove’s knowing direction, Farinelli and the King is a production that
fairly vibrates with imaginative touches, embraced fully by the cast.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
the Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th
Playing until March 25