Culture Magazine

Theater Review: The High Price of Beauty

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Farinelli and the King on Broadway.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Theater Review: The High Price of Beauty

Tragic kingdom: Sam Crane and Mark Rylance in the titular roles of Farinelli and the King.
Photo © 2018 Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.


Those of you who regularly read Superconductor know that the dramatic stage, that is, the one without an orchestra or singing is not the normal demesne of this publication. However, thanks to the good offices of my friend Amy M., your humble correspondent found himself at Saturday night's performance of Farinelli and the King. This play, produced by Shakespeare's Globe of London and written by that company's resident composer Claire van Kampen, opened on Broadway in December after a successful London run. (It closes at the Belaco Theater on March 25.)
Some historical background: Farinelli (real name Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi) was the greatest opera singer in Europe in the 1720s, appearing on stage across the continent. He was castrated (allegedly by his brother) at ten years old, and his high, clear soprano voice was reknowned for its unearthly beauty and superb quality. In 1737, the singer became the personal servant of Philippe V, the grandson of Louis XIV and the Bourbon king of Spain. Philippe suffered from a cornucopia of mental diseases, and it was Farinelli's voice that proved able to ease his mind and relieve his suffering. The singer spent years in the King's service, and then, to the chagrin of opera lovers, retired to the city of Bologna.
Mark Rylance is Philippe. He is first encountered in his pajamas, fishing for a goldfish in a large balloon glass. His monolog to the goldfish, which he names "Alfonso" provides the audience with a doorway into the king's disorders: he grapples with inner and outer voices, roars in rage and finds himself, as with many absolute rulers, trapped in the job he was tapped for as a youth. Mr. Rylance plays Philippe as both towering and petty, careening between functionality and full madness. The Shakespearean actor  merges the qualities of King Lear and the Fool from that same play. It is harrowing, open-hearted and utterly compelling.
Queen Isabella (the Italian noblewoman Elisabeta Farnese, played by the aptly named Melody Grove) comes up with a solution. She travels to London and recruits Farinelli (much to the consternation of the impresario John Rich, played to comic effect by Simon Jones) and has him sing for the king. Sam Crane plays the great singer. When the arias (mostly drawn from Handel) appear in the show, Mr. Crane is joined and sometimes replaced by an identically dressed countertenor, with music provided from an orchestra seated high above the stage. What comes across in these two acts is the power of music to heal the shattered mind, and the sheer beauty of the baroque style.
Ms. van Kampen's text does not pull punches when it comes to Farinelli's mutilation. Mr. Crane played this part with a sharp intensity, explaining the mental division that exists between man and performing artist, and the essential emptiness of his life as an interpreter of others' work. Everything has literally been sacrificed for art, and the consequence of the pursuit of aesthetics is the message here. Farinelli the man needs the King just as much as the King needs Farinelli, and it is their dynamic that drives the play forward. The first half is all political tension and the second, a pastoral masque, echoing the baroque operas of Handel and his predecessor Henry Purcell.
As the audience fills the house, they are treated to baroque fiddling from three musicians on the stage. They later retire to the orchestra loft, located in the upper reaches of the unit set. The music in this show is more than just ornament: these arias by Handel (many drawn from Rinaldo) comment on the action and accent the story. They provide (just as they did in the baroque operas of Farinelli's day) a much needed emotional release for both King Philippe and for the audience. At this performance, countertenor James Hall (substituting for the regular Iestyn Davies) sang with grace and beauty of tone, adding astonishing ornament to the da capo sections of each aria.
Designer John Fensom captures the theatrical style and extravagance of the 18th century, and director John Dove makes the work move much faster than the opera. Costumes are accurate and lovingly detailed, with the extravagance and curlicues of the baroque even extending to the King's royal pajamas. The entire show is staged by candlelight, which creates the warmth and intimacy of the era's theatrical presentations. For the lovers of baroque opera, those curious about a lost (if not missed) era of singing, and for fans of Mr. Rylance, the few shows remaining are of prurient interest.


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