Two Critics Review One Show: Farinelli and the King

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Mark Rylance in Farinelli and the King, at the Belasco. Photo: Joan Marcus

Claire van Kampen’s new play Farinelli and the King — just transferred from London to the Belasco — is a duet for two virtuosos. It tells the mostly true story of the French-born King Philippe V of Spain, who suffered from debilitating bouts of depression and what we now know as bipolar disorder, and who found solace and, at times, even sanity in the singing of the world-famous castrato known as Farinelli. The singer — who was born Carlo Broschi in 1705 in Italy and whose family had him castrated at the age of 10 to preserve his angelic voice — served in the Spanish court for nine years, abandoning superstardom to sing privately for one troubled monarch, then retiring to Bologna, never to perform in public again.

The king and the castrato; one man wounded in mind and one in body, brought together by music. No wonder such a premise fascinated van Kampen, primarily a composer and music scholar who makes her playwriting debut with Farinelli and the King. (She arranged the arias used in the production as well.) It also doesn’t hurt that van Kampen happens to be married to the man who’s generally considered the best actor of his generation, and that he’s treading the boards in Farinelli as the “king” half of the title. The 57-year-old Mark Rylance has collected just about every major acting award it’s possible to win, in roles from Jerusalem’s Johnny “Rooster” Byron to Wolf Hall’s Thomas Cromwell to Shakespeare’s Richard III and Countess Olivia in Twelfth Night (his last Broadway appearance in 2013 was in that double-bill, also an import from Shakespeare’s Globe, where he served as artistic director from 1995–2005). Joining Mark Rylance’s King Philippe is another undisputed master of his craft, the 38-year-old countertenor Iestyn Davies, who supplies Farinelli’s singing voice while the actor Sam Crane fills out the character dramatically.

An onstage duet seemed to call for an offstage one, so I attended Farinelli and the King with New York’s classical-music critic, Justin Davidson. Then we sat down to talk opera and theater, acting versus singing, 18th-century patronage and politics, kings, castrati, the music of the spheres, and more.

JUSTIN DAVIDSON: So I’m interested in a couple of things. First, what does performing mean to Farinelli? Why does he find singing for one screwy sovereign so much more satisfying than for an adoring audience in London? What does he get out of it? Then, on a related note, what does music mean to the king? Music therapy has its place, but it doesn’t generally require a world-class virtuoso to be permanently on call.

SARA HOLDREN: Right, what’s the specific link between these two men, outside of a kind of generic music-therapy relationship? So, I think when Philippe’s queen, Isabella (played by Melody Grove), discovers Farinelli singing in England and basically just buys him from the theater manager John Rich (Colin Hurley), she’s responding to the transcendent beauty of his voice. She has some conviction that the king needs to hear this “unimaginable” sound that has her transfixed and weeping — but her response is instinctive, not articulate. I don’t think even she can anticipate the depth of connection that will occur between the king and the singer — and not simply in a beautiful, healing way.

J.D.: There’s that very strong scene when the two men first meet.

S.H.: Right. They approach each other cautiously, like animals sniffing each other out — a caged lion and a caged bird. What they share is their brokenness. Neither sees himself as human anymore — one is an earthly god and the other is an earthly angel. They’ve both lost parts of themselves — or had them taken away — to achieve that so-called transcendence. I’m so much more interested in the fact that both men are damaged and stay damaged than I am in the “music heals” hypothesis, which feels like where van Kampen is putting most of her energy.

J.D.: What the play has to say about music boils down to some pretty sappy and anachronistic slogans about its universality and healing powers.

S.H.: And the “cure” doesn’t actually work — Farinelli doesn’t heal the king!

J.D.: So why does he stay for so long — nine years — unless his relationship with Philippe is more than simply therapeutic? Van Kampen doesn’t really run with that idea, and even the idea that it’s therapy for the therapist runs into a dead end.

S.H.: It actually feels like there’s a much more interesting play hiding inside this one, where the ugly side — rather than the transcendent side — of what draws king and singer together is more fully explored. Instead, we get a lot of Iestyn Davies singing beautifully while Mark Rylance listens like an enraptured child — and we also get a hackneyed subplot where Farinelli falls for the queen, which feels like a really thin explanation for why he’d stick around the court or why he’d eventually want to leave.

J.D.: Do you buy the premise that Farinelli would walk away from his life like that? I mean, I know it happened historically, but in the context of the play, does it seem earned? I feel like we don’t get to see enough of his London life to understand what it is that he’s fleeing.

S.H.: He’s underdeveloped as a character. We actually don’t get to see him in London at all — just Isabella paying John Rich so that she can spirit him away. When we meet him in Spain, he’s just a diffident young man who seems worlds away from his megastar reputation. And clearly van Kampen is trying to lean into that contradictory double nature — the singer and the man, Farinelli versus Carlo.

J.D.: One has a larynx, the other has a heart.

S.H.: But it doesn’t quite work. Partly because it’s deeply unsettling to watch poor Sam Crane just … stand there while Davies is singing. Farinelli’s arias aren’t a Singing in the Rain–style lip-syncing situation for the actor; they feature both men on stage together, in identical period costumes, one singing with utter confidence and flawless tone, and the other sort of nervously half-mimicking his partner’s movements and attempting to do some subtle-but-moving face acting … While getting completely shown up by the song. I felt so bad for Crane — watching him during the arias, I felt like I was looking at a performer who’s painfully aware that he doesn’t actually have access to his character’s soul. His soul is outside of him, over there on the other side of the stage, singing.

J.D.: I can’t imagine a more awkward assignment than standing there while the guy who’s supposed to be you makes exquisite sounds and you have literally nothing to do.

S.H.: Yes! Crane is being asked to play Carlo, not Farinelli, and Carlo is a thankless role.

J.D.: It also doesn’t quite work because you never get the sense that Davies is burnt out, which the character is.

S.H.: Right, Davies sounds glorious and exudes total calm and charisma throughout the show. Whereas we’re supposed to believe that Carlo/Farinelli is dying inside — he’s like a Russian ballerina or a thoroughbred, used up before his time.

J.D.: It’s a paradoxical job for a performer: Make the audience believe that you’re the world’s greatest singer, delivering music tailored specifically for you — and at the same time that your heart’s not really in it, until suddenly (when you go to work for a troubled king) it is. What I actually heard was a fine singer delivering tasteful performances of some rather famous Handel arias.

S.H.: Yeah, that’s a really hard acting challenge and they’ve tried to split it over two bodies, with the result being that we don’t really see the arc. Davies isn’t being asked to do anything but sound gorgeous, and Crane is uniformly fretful throughout. Rylance doesn’t really get much of an arc either. Yes, Farinelli’s singing brings him moments of joy and peace and clarity, but he remains the unstable presence of the play’s beginning (the man we meet while he’s talking to a goldfish) throughout the show. He’s mercurial and childlike — all violent mood swings, manic highs, and desolate, nasty lows — but he’s predictable in that unpredictability. It feels like we’re being asked to witness how these two men changed each other, but did they really? The characters feel largely static — beautifully sung by Davies and powerfully acted by Rylance, but, in van Kampen’s writing, not very dynamic.

J.D.: Agreed. The play consists of a premise without a plot. Like some operas, it’s full of loosely connected material that depends heavily on the virtuoso to carry it off.

S.H.: And when Rylance isn’t onstage or Davies isn’t singing, it’s serious looking-at-your-watch o’clock. The scenes with the two royal counselors (Edward Peel as the huffy minister De La Cuadra and Huss Garbiya as the conflicted, semi-sympathetic Doctor Cervi) are downright wooden, and even Isabella has to deliver a whole lot of expository clunkers. There’s so much explaining in this play — an epidemic of characters telling you what they’re going to do before they do it. Which isn’t really that surprising, considering that it’s van Kampen’s first play. Honestly, even Rylance doesn’t save all his scenes. There were certain points when he was onstage and I couldn’t help thinking, “God, I wish I were watching him do Shakespeare right now.” It probably didn’t help that van Kampen kept cheekily stealing and inserting Shakespeare lines here and there.

J.D.: The play opens with a clever set piece in which Philippe is fishing for a goldfish in a bowl and having a conversation with the creature at the same time. I enjoyed that, but over time, I got bored with the whole wacko-monarch thing. Real redemption isn’t possible and his inner life remains impenetrable.

S.H.: Which leads him to deliver lines like, “I am a king. We are not allowed to think or truly feel.” It’s tough territory, because we don’t actually know what’s going on in that head — both because it’s royal and because it’s ill — and van Kampen isn’t quite skillful enough to get us in there.

J.D.: What did you make of the puzzling scene in which we, the audience, are cast as a crowd of Spanish peasants in the forest and Farinelli sings for us?

S.H.: Oh gosh, I cringed. “Oh, hello audience! There you are!” There was something forced and weirdly twee and even a little tone-deaf about it — casting this group of Broadway playgoers as romantically poor people, like something out of a Bouguereau painting.

J.D.: The implication seemed to be that Farinelli’s London audiences were cheap and exploitative and commercial and that “we” — representing the peasants and poachers — are somehow “pure.”

S.H.: Yes, up till now Farinelli’s been terrified of performing for a crowd (he talks about his London performances like they’re out-of-body experiences — the voice coming out of him isn’t really him), but then he discovers his real publique by singing for us Mediterranean yokels — so inherently innocent and attentive.

J.D.: And late-18th-century London was relatively democratic, compared to the rest of Europe — and certainly Spain! — where the court controlled the opera scene. That makes the politics of this play weirdly retrograde. You have a provincial kid from feudal Southern Italy who strikes it rich as an entertainer, then rediscovers the kind of patriarchal patronage system he was born into. The music he sings for the potentate is by Handel, who was an immigrant impresario in London — everything that the play represents as distastefully modern.

S.H.: Meanwhile, we’re all indulging in a Marie Antoinette shepherd fantasy.

J.D.: I keep coming back to this idea of purity: The king is mentally ill, but also unsullied by politics. Farinelli is too seraphic for the crassness of show-biz. And together the two of them go out into the forest to try to hear the stars sing —

S.H.: — to listen for the famous, mystical “music of the spheres.” Right.

J.D.: Literally celestial music. And in the play, the arias, which were originally sung monologues in music dramas, are turned into “pure music”, which is really a romantic 19th-century concept. The king doesn’t understand the words and doesn’t care. And yet we hear those arias reinserted into a dramatic setting — van Kampen’s play — now serving a different plot. They’re not just music; they’re music about music.

S.H.: What did you think of the music itself?

J.D.: Davies is one of the best countertenors out there, a performer of immense sensitivity. I would have liked to hear some of the fiery, top-note show-off arias that Farinelli was famous for, so the slower, more expressive pieces that he sings to the King make sense in context. But the truth is that Davies doesn’t really sound anything like Farinelli — or even the way he’s described in the play. I last heard Davies in October, in Thomas Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel at the Met, and as much as I loved encountering him again in the Belasco, which is much more intimate, I didn’t really understand the integration between Handel’s music and van Kampen’s play.

S.H.: We in the audience are being asked to have the same experience as the king: Just listen and let it wash over you as a sensory experience. Be transported, touch a piece of heaven.

J.D.: And don’t ask too many questions.

Farinelli and the King is at the Belasco Theatre.

Two Critics Review One Show: Farinelli and the King