Music is mysterious. It pulls emotions out of us, it urges us to remember for good or ill, pleasure or pain. It riles us up, it calms us down. Among other neurologists, Oliver Sachs particularly has written about music’s healing capacity. Music therapy for people with dementia has been shown to awaken lost energies and memories.
The odd story of Farinelli and the King is an example of music’s magical power. King Philippe V of Spain, while some days brilliant, was just as often deeply disturbed, hiding in his room, fearful of other people, holding conversation with his goldfish Alfonso. When his wife Queen Isabella heard castrato Farinelli sing she believed he could help her husband, so the two made the arduous journey (this was early in the 18th century) from England to Spain for this great experiment. Surely hearing Farinelli’s glorious voice could awaken the king from his coma-like state.
This play is based on the real relationship and real story that Farinelli, a great castrato of the 18th century, gave up his opera career to live with the king and queen of Spain for nine years, singing to keep the king’s humors level. In addition to my interest in the subject matter, the play itself more than held my attention and I cared very much for the characters as written by Claire Van Kampen. It is most beautifully produced with fine musicians and actors gracing the stage. Ms. Van Kampen is also the musical arranger, so clearly knows her subject. Jonathan Fensom’s designs immediately draw us into the London theatre, the Madrid palace as well as the house in the forest we experience later.
John Dove’s direction pulls all these marvelous elements together for a musical and engaging evening.
Mark Rylance plays King Philippe V. Mark Rylance is a genius. Funny, endearing, sometimes frightening and heartbreaking. Philippe is at his best away from the responsibilities and clutter of court and city life, out in the forest where he wants to hear the stars singing. Don’t we all. When Jonathan Fensom’s scenic design transports us to the forest, we too wish to stay.
Queen Isabella as played by the engaging Melody Grove is practical, powerful and passionate. She is the one who brings the audience along on this journey, making us root for her goals to save her husband.
Dan Crane acts Farinelli with sensitivity and grace, while Iestyn Davies, a countertenor, sings Farinelli.
It’s an interesting conceit: When the scene calls for Farinelli to sing, Mr. Davies enters the stage dressed exactly like Crane’s Farinelli, and begins to sing and act his aria, prowling the stage. Crane’s Farinelli remains, silent, not too close to his alter ego, not too far, communing with the inner spirit of the singer Farinelli. At least that’s what it looked like to me, and I was riveted. Crane seems to be subtly reflecting what’s going on inside the singer Davies.
This was oddly fascinating to watch and oddly not disruptive to the action.
Conflict external to the king’s distress is largely supplied by the King’s wily and seemingly advanced Doctor Cervi, deftly played by Huss Garbiya. The doctor (and Isabella and the King) are in constant conflict with the king’s minister De La Cuadra, coldly and beautifully played by Edward Peel.
Queen Isabella originally found Farinelli performing for London theatrical manager John Rich, who is wittily and convincingly played by Colin Hurley.
Like the Globe’s last production here at the Belasco Theatre, the set design is in two levels, the gallery wrapped around and above the playing area on three sides so that audience members may sit on the stage surrounding the players, while the upper back gallery is occupied by the excellent musicians. We can see all, yet they don’t draw attention from the players. It is imaginative and impressive and very well used. In the second half, Mr. Rylance adds a third level as the King chats with the audience as if they were denizens of the forest.
If you’ve read what I’ve written in past months about the musical passions of Indecent and The Band’s Visit, you may wonder about the music in Farinelli and the King. A harpsichord plays the audience in, and is joined in the half hour before the play starts by a violinist, a cellist, and a lute player. These and more musicians accompany much of the action for the evening and afford great pleasure.
This play was not as effective for me as it will be for opera lovers. The formal style of operatic singing awakens no passion in me. Although I intellectually know how powerful the music is (and I know we cannot know what a castrato really sounded like), I was not brought to any emotion by the singing. Mr. Rylance’s performance as the troubled king showed me, however, all I needed to know about that music’s effect.
Finally, I must mention the fabulous hair and wigs by Campbell Young that helped set us in Madrid or the forest and truly complemented the character development.
Farinelli and the King plays at the Belasco only until March 25, 2018. Performances are marvelous in a brilliant design, and the play stands on its own without plays of a similar “type” to compare it to — in any case, nothing and no one compares with Mark Rylance. If tickets are still available, get to the Belasco and hear the singing of the stars.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to contemplate a new year. Be happy and healthy.