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Theatre in Review: Farinelli and the King (Belasco Theatre)

Sam Crane, Mark Rylance. Photo: Joan Marcus

In Farinelli and the King, the noted theatre composer and musical historian Claire van Kampen turns playwright, creating a vehicle that ideally suits her interests and those of her husband, Mark Rylance. This slice of European history allows her to explore the phenomenon of the castrato and to probe a famous case of what later became known as music therapy; the production features several ravishing musical sequences, most of them composed by Handel and performed, flawlessly, on authentic period instruments such as the theorbo and Baroque guitar. In addition, she has gifted Rylance with the juicy role of Philippe V, the French-born King of Spain who, during his reign (spanning the first half of the eighteenth century), struggled with what would probably be diagnosed today as bipolar disorder. It's clearly a win-win situation for the couple; the only audience members who are likely to feel shortchanged are those who attend the theatre looking for exciting drama.

Despite its many attractions, Farinelli and the King is a crudely constructed affair that barely rises to the level of anecdote. It begins, promisingly, on a note of daft comedy, establishing the Spanish court as a kind of cloud-cuckoo-land where everyone is subject to the mad monarch's fancies. We first see Philippe lying on a chaise longue, holding a fishing rod, its line immersed in a small fishbowl occupied by a single goldfish. He talks to his prey, earning a big laugh when, in all politeness, he says, "I'm so sorry, I didn't quite catch your name." Interrupted by his concerned wife, Isabella, he confounds her by announcing he is ready to go hunting. When she protests that it is the middle of the night, he replies, pointing upstage, "All I have to do is climb into that painting [of a horse] and up on her back and away we go." Later, he commands her, "This is my dream, not yours," refusing to admit that they occupy a shared reality. But when Isabella tries to light some candles, he flies into a fury, emptying the fishbowl in her face. The transition from high-wire comedy to rage and terror -- within seconds he appears ashen and trembling -- is seamlessly enacted, a sterling example of this brilliant actor's technique.

What with such antics unfolding on a daily basis, Don Sebastián De La Cuadra, the chief minister, is eager to maneuver Philippe into abdicating, a prospect that appears likely until Isabella, on a visit to London -- Did queen consorts of the eighteenth century travel freely without their husbands? -- discovers Carlo Farinelli performing and decides that his vocal gifts will beguile Philippe. More or less purchasing Farinelli from the manager of the theatre where he is appearing, Isabella brings him back to Madrid where, with a single aria, he rouses the king out of a coma-like torpor, his reason restored to the point where he can spot an error buried in a voluminous military spending bill.

The role of Farinelli, by the way, is split in two, with Sam Crane more than capably handling the acting and (at most performances) Iestyn Davies providing impeccable vocals; this is a felicitous idea, as Farinelli sees his performing self as another, invented, character to whom he is only distantly related. ("Farinelli" was the stage name of Carlo Broschi.) As he points out, in a passage that brings about a stunned silence in the house, his musical career was foisted on him when, at the age of ten, his brother, a composer who wanted to make permanent use of the boy's pure soprano tones, castrated him. His celebrity is his private curse. The playwright gives him several vivid passages that describe his performing life as a kind of hell: Recounting his tumultuous London debut, he says, "I dazzled them with ornaments and trills. But I felt nothing. Not even despair."

Up to this point, Farinelli and the King makes a pretty good case that the mentally damaged king and the singer, whose talent is the result of ghastly violence, have something in common. After that, however, the play has no place to go, wandering through a series of scenes distractedly and to little dramatic purpose. Farinelli hasn't really healed Philippe, who remains profoundly uninterested in the duties of his office. Instead, the characters decamp to the countryside, where, rusticating in a manner that Marie Antoinette might recognize, they take part in an extended experiment that involves trying to listen to the music of the spheres. There is a half-hearted attempt at a forbidden-love plot, but it comes to nothing, with the characters being dispersed in a hasty wrap-up that lays bare the thinness of the entire enterprise. (In reality, Farinelli became a major power at the Spanish court, continuing through the reign of Philippe's son, Ferdinand VI.) Van Kampen is not immune to crude, pandering jokes, either: At one point, Philippe refers to Farinelli's brother as "Rick the Knife." There is an off-topic discussion of that new (for 1738) invention, the sandwich, and, when a crowd surrounds the royal country retreat, Philippe says, "Here they are. All looking expectant and we've got fuck-all for them."

There are many ways this story could have been framed, but van Kampen seems oddly uninterested in them. What with war threatening offstage and the ship of state left, if you will, in dry dock, Farinelli and the King could be about the state of a nation unmoored by a psychologically damaged ruler -- a situation all too real for American audiences at the moment -- but the play is only really interested in demonstrating -- repeatedly and without development -- the ameliorative effects of music. For all of his lovingly rendered comic business, Philippe remains a distant figure, elusively skipping from one eccentric fancy to another, his mental illness too often made dismayingly picturesque. (In real life, he often lay in his own excrement and howled like a mad dog.) One wishes Rylance would strive harder to find roles commensurate with his abilities. Having sat through Nice Fish (co-written by the star) and this spousal contribution, it's fair to say the current program of homemade vehicles isn't working at all well.

For all of Crane's fine work -- he is especially good at listening to the others, taking in the political crosscurrents surrounding him -- Farinelli is little more than a pawn with a gorgeous voice, his interior largely left unexplored. The most interesting character by far is Isabella, who, despite her precarious position -- she is not beloved by the people, like Philippe's first wife, who died young -- is determined to protect her husband from predators at court. In Melody Grove's performance, Isabella is often more compelling than the title characters -- no small achievement since the script provides her with little support.

John Dove's production, which moves at a rapid clip, also features solid turns by Edward Peel as La Cuadra, made apoplectic by Philippe's rapidly changing moods, and Colin Hurley as John Rich, the jaded London theatre manager who struggles to keep the doors open without Farinelli. Jonathan Fensom's set, a black-and-gold court interior with a blue, star-studded ceiling, features period-style drops that lower in when the action moves to London or the countryside. (There are a fair number of onstage seats, located on two levels.) Fensom's elaborately brocaded period costumes are surely the most gorgeous we've seen all season, and are frequently topped with towering wigs by Campbell Young Associates. In keeping with the aesthetic at London's Sam Wanamaker Theatre, where this production originated, Paul Russell's lighting is dominated by candlelight, supplemented by some carefully concealed lighting fixtures.

Rylance has such a devoted following that none of this may matter to his many fans -- and many will relish the chance to hear Davies deliver selections from Rinaldo, Flavio, and Giulio Cesare, among others. But this is enormously rich historical material, boiled down to make a few relatively simple points. Yes, music hath charms to soothe a savage breast. But can't it work up a little dramatic tension as well? -- David Barbour

(18 December 2017)

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