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New York City Theater

"Farinelli and the King"
Belasco Theatre

The beeswax candles are lit, the costumed musicians are in place, the audience awaits as we are transported to the court of Madrid in the 18th century. Then the King enters – or, more properly, is wheeled in on a bed. In his hands are a fishing rod and a water-filled bowl containing a trapped goldfish.

The similarly trapped King speaks to the fish: “I see you are ignoring my bait; Kings shouldn’t catch fish. Perhaps they fed you before, just to trick me into believing you’re playing hard to catch. But I’m ahead of them all, you see. I know I am dreaming and they do not.”

Thus begins “Farinelli and the King,” Claire van Kampen’s fascinating, intelligent, amusing, ultimately forlorn dissection of the relationship between world-famous singer Carlo Broschi – known as Farinelli – and the possibly mad King Philippe V of Spain. How the artist “cures” the politician is one motif of this rich panoply of intrigue, longing and the sadness of being forced to play roles.

Although it has neither the emotional depth nor turbulent drama of its closest cousin, “Amadeus,” van Kampen’s play illuminates a world of contradictions: city vs. country, mind vs. body, devotion and duty vs. love. Only art has the power to close gaps, to heal, yet it itself is inexplicable. Farinelli believes he has no claim on his abilities. Of his debut he says, “Out of nowhere I heard a high note in the air. I wondered where it was coming from. I realized it was me.”

Philippe, also feeling he’s an imposter, as installed as King by his grandfather, Louis XIV, has every reason to feel paranoid. Loyalty, except from his wife, is elusive: he’s even presented with articles of abdication, akin to impeachment. But he’s not as loony as supposed. Echoing King Lear, he says, “Loving comes to nothing . . . nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing.”

Philippe begins his long journey from nihilism when his wife, Queen Isabella, gifts him with salvation in the form of Farinelli. To become a famous counter-tenor, Farinelli was castrated at age ten by his brother, thus insuring that his pre-pubescent voice would remain pure. As arias by Handel waft from polished floor to star-studded ceiling, the King is enchanted: “It’s a long time since I felt I wanted something – anything,” he says.

He proposes moving to a house in the forest where he can, by cutting a hole in the canopy of trees, “hear the stars.” It’s here, in nature and away from court, that the King feels most alive, changed by the sound of a human voice. It’s here, also, that more mundane emotions rear up.

As the King, the multi-awarded Mark Rylance opens his mind and heart. His mercurial moves are an acting trick for sure, but we can actually read his thoughts. A flicker here or there conveys the King’s conflicting emotions. Both puppet and puppeteer, the forceful Rylance captures the King’s duality.

Sam Crane is Farinelli, the actor, mirrored by Iestyn Davies as Farinelli, the singer. While Davies sends his voice to the rafters, Crane mimics his gestures, two people in one, another duality. Thus, Farinelli is a human being who bedazzles not as himself but as a rare talent. The appealing Crane is empathetic and mysterious, straightforward yet baffled as the actor, and Davies is sensational as the singer, his angelic voice prompting prolonged ovations.

The mostly British cast is fine: Melody Grove as the loyal, longing Queen; Huss Garbiya as the worried court physician; Colin Hurley as an apoplectic  theater manager; Edward Peel as a scheming minister; and Lucas Hall as a busy servant. Seven musicians play on period instruments with extraordinary delicacy.

Jonathan Fensom’s designs and Paul Russell’s lighting are stunning. Director John Dove’s sure hand evokes both the period and today (some of the language is contemporary). He’s devoted to sudden shifts of focus, as his actors give unexpected readings, upending what may otherwise be non-starter plot devices. Director and author seem less concerned with whether the monarch is unhinged than with how even war may be prevented when leaders turn to nature and art, becoming one with those who are “not afraid of the earth.”

--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 21, 2017

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