“If Music Be the Food of Therapy”
The Belasco Theatre, with its abundance of beautifully crafted wood and exquisite, old-time, stained-glass lighting fixtures, is the perfect venue for Claire Van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King, a visually plump but dramatically slim production created by London’s Shakespeare’s Globe, starring first-time playwright Van Kampen’s husband, Mark Rylance.
Elegantly directed (by John Dove) and effectively acted and sung, this fact-based play’s subject matter is inherently fascinating. That subject is the apparent recovery of King Philippe V (Rylance) of Spain from mental illness on hearing the remarkable singing voice of the castrato Carlo Farinelli (acted by Sam Crane; sung by Iestyn Davies), born Carlo Broschi in 1705.But beyond its premise of music having curative powers, which now has some empirical evidence to support it, Farinelli and the King doesn’t contribute greatly to the advance of modern playwriting.
Philippe’s beautiful Italian wife, Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove), sometimes known as Elisabetta, seeks to prevent him from losing his monarchical power, so she goes to London to hire Farinelli, the most famous singer of the day. Van Kampen strains credibility when she has Isabella request his services from John Rich (Colin Hurley), the resistant, preoccupied manager he’s contracted to, by simply asking for him backstage at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields playhouse without bothering to mention she’s the Queen of Spain.
Isabella’s plan to cure Philippe, grandson of France’s Louis XIV, of his madness by having Farinelli sing to him, a scheme initially opposed by the king’s chief counselor La Caudra (Edward Peel) but supported by the physician Dr. José Cervi (Hus Garbiya), appears to work, or, at least, to ameliorate Philippe’s condition. The king, so enamored of the singer that he needs his voice the way a junky needs drugs, makes him a permanent employee of his monarchy, which he served for nine years, never again singing professionally. One of the play’s shortcomings is its failure to sufficiently justify this choice.
Much is made of the fact that Farinelli’s talent was enhanced when his ambitious brother, the composer Riccardo Farinelli, had him castrated (it was actually a family decision) when he was ten. This appears not to have affected his romantic inclinations, and Van Kampen creates an attraction between Farinelli and Isabella to help sex up the plot and give one possible reason for Farinelli's sticking around.
Once the premise is established, however, the plot itself is rather uninteresting and its suspense quite limited; the playwright has to depend on various distractions, including faintly comic dialogue (including a reference to “Ricc the knife”), to keep the action moving. As is typical in many such biodramas, Van Kampen plays to contemporary ears with questionable expressions, like “balls,” “genitals,” “fuck,” and “shite.”
Two hours and 15 minutes seems a bit long to stretch this material; perhaps the inclusion of nine operatic solos by Handel, which pads the time, will please audiences with a taste for such classical music. Perhaps not. As performed, we see both the actor-Farinelli and the singer-Farinelli simultaneously. When a song is coming on, the latter steps forward and the former recedes, standing by forlornly as though invested in the musical mood. During nonmusical scenes, we see only the actor-Farinelli.
The visuals couldn’t be better, thanks to John Fensom’s superb period costumes, the perfectly done big wigs of Campbell Young Associates, and Fensom’s magnificently baroque set, which appears to be a mashup of various English stage types, public and private, from the Elizabethan to the 18th century.
Onstage audience seating is on two levels at either side (although the upper level’s sightlines look awful) and on an upper level at the rear, where musicians accompany the action. A trap in the ceiling and one in the floor allow surprise exits and exits in keeping with contemporary practice.
Footlights line the downstage lip, a ceiling painted with stars and planets hangs overhead, and chandeliers using what appear to be real candles are lowered and raised. Lighting designer Paul Russell, who keeps the lights on in the house throughout, has cleverly managed to conceal his sources, creating the low-intensity illusion that the actors are being illuminated by candlepower alone.
Act one of the two-act play, set in 1737, has one scene backstage at a London theatre, but takes place largely at the Madrid palace of Philippe V; act two is mostly located during the same year at the king’s forest residence in San Ildefonso, with a time jump forward to 1759, in yet another London theatre, and to Bologna, where Farinelli lived in his retirement.
Aside from occasional scenic elements that fly in to suggest either the shift to London or to indicate 18th-century scenic methods, the set remains a neutral space that serves for any locale.
And, in keeping with the evocation of period visual effects, the acting also has a self-consciously theatrical patina, much of it aimed directly at the audience. At one point, the king treats the Belasco audience as if it were the one attending a concert at his forest home; he even gets laughs by pointing to people as though they’re the ones he’s mentioning (like, for instance, a prostitute).
Mark Rylance has gained much praise locally for his excellent Broadway performances in plays like Boeing-Boeing, Jerusalem, Twelfth Night, and Richard III. He’s quite good as Philippe but he offers few surprises to those familiar with his previous roles. Once again, we see the slightly quirky, mildly distracted countenance, the offhand hesitations as a line is spoken, the casually naturalistic stutters, the self-deprecating tone combined with vocally forceful readings.
Melody Grove makes Philippe’s wife a strongly supportive, if two-dimensional, spouse. Her role might have been further developed by showing, as history informs us, that it was she, in fact, who ran the Spanish government, not her husband; it’s something David Cote’s otherwise informative program on the play’s “historical truths” doesn’t mention.
Sam Crane brings grace and sensitivity to Farinelli while his musical doppelganger Iestyn Davies offers a fine countertenor for the character’s solos. For obvious reasons, though, he can offer only a shadow of what the real singer must have sounded like. Thus, for all his talent, he’s unable to cure the melancholy of those who would have preferred a stronger play in which to hear him.
111 W. 44th St., NYC
Through March 25