New York, N.Y. – “Farinelli and the King,” one of the most anticipated plays of the Broadway season, opened Sunday evening. Indeed, a sign of its popularity is that even before it opened scalpers were charging Hamilton-type prices for tickets. Little should change. This is a must-see show for anyone who loves theater.
Mark Rylance, a three-time Tony Award-winner and one-time Oscar winner, stars in the limited 16-week run. His brilliant performance alone should keep it a hot ticket throughout its run.
However, there is more. The production is filled with many marvelous performances, and the production values are impressive. The lush costumes lit mostly by candlelight create an aura of beauty and support the writing that is rich and provocative. Perhaps too rich and provocative, as the play is flawed by being excessively cerebral and overly ambitious. It is a case that illustrates great theater can be made from less-than-great material.
It’s all based on a true story. King Philippe V of Spain was bi-polar. He suffered deep bouts of extreme depression which caused him to be considered ill-fit to rule. When his queen, Isabella, attends a London performance by the rock star castrato, Farinelli, she is awestruck by the beauty of his performance. Believing in the magic that exists within his music she brings Farinelli to court in the hope he can sooth the demons that exist within Philippe’s head. The two men, kindred spirits in unique ways, bond and become close companions. In time, the king recovers from his bouts of madness.
Though the play suffers from an abundance of provocative themes that are not always brought to a satisfying conclusion, playwright Claire Van Kampen does take this fascinating footnote of history and links it to music, theater, spirituality and life to form a fable-like story. Were that the fable had a clearer moral.
The idea of music being able to bring calm to a troubled mind is a stepping point to ideas about the power of art and the curse of genius. Both Philippe and Farinelli are major figures in the world, and they both are incomplete. After they meet they become whole through music.
Until Farinelli meets the king he sees himself as a freak who creates beautiful music. His castration at the age of 10 by his brother is a horrible price to pay for fame, which brings glory but no satisfaction. He is as melancholy as is Philippe.
When the two meet it changes. Philippe is all the audience he needs. His singing has value because it can heal. And Philippe knows that listening to Farinelli is a gift from God. He says of Farinelli, “Before I heard him sing, I thought it impossible to hear divinity.” The play suggests that to understand divinity is to know peace.
In the second act they leave the court to live in the forest. The work turns into a quest for spirituality by communing with nature. A highlight of the act is when they share their gifts with the population (played by the audience) and an aria is performed that is eloquently and achingly beautiful.
The moment makes you understand both the rejuvenating power of isolation and the need to share beauty with others. Soon, they learn that love of the ephemeral does not always make an individual’s life better. Farinelli forsakes singing in public and, in a touch of bitter irony, once healed from madness Philippe goes off to war.
The acting is just short of perfect. The moment we meet the king fishing for and talking with a goldfish in a bowl - we understand benign madness. By play's end, we understand Philippe as a man and a monarch. Rylance’s deceptive style seems bereft of technique and almost accidental in its achievement. But his osmosis from madman to a controlled ruler is as calculated as it is brilliant.
Sam Crane as Farinelli creates a gentle, modest man who has been bruised by life and understands that the price of his talent is a life of isolation. Melody Grove as Queen Isabella is a strong and determined woman who is afraid she will never feel love as beautiful as Farinelli’s singing. A weakness in the writing is we don’t get to know this fascinating person better.
As for emotional power, nothing on stage matches the haunting beauty of the nine arias sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies. (James Hall performs at matinees). It’s a marvelous dramatic device that both Farinellis (dressed in identical costumes) become two parts of the same man. One is beautiful with an angelic voice, the other is a sad human with all the weaknesses of the species. Together they forge a creation that represents the potential for beauty when the spirit is elevated through art.
“Farinelli and the King” makes you ponder about life and art. It is supported by wonderful performances that provoke and tantalize the mind. But, ultimately it is the haunting music that connects you to the idea that the human search for spirituality can only be achieved through an act of art.
If someone on your Christmas list loves theater or good music or wants to know what it feels like to experience beauty – get him or her a pair of tickets to “Farinelli and the King.” It’s at the Belasco Theatre in New York City through March 25.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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