In “Farinelli and the King,” Singer Iestyn Davies Gives Actor Mark Rylance a Counter(tenor) Example


Sublimity doesn’t come frequently to Broadway. Noise, comic shenanigans, and familiar emotional tropes heavily underlined with histrionics are the commercial theater’s stock-in-trade. Yet every once in a while, it does allow room for something that goes a bit beyond these aspects of its everyday traffic, some occasion on which a little space for the contemplation of transcendent beauty is opened up. Since our trashy failure of a civilization provides few such occasions in any walk of life, welcoming them when they do arrive is a wise move.

Several such moments of sublimity are currently being supplied by the countertenor Iestyn Davies, who plays the singing voice of the first-mentioned title role in Claire Van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King, at the Belasco Theatre for a limited engagement. The rest of the evening, however, seems to have been arranged by people who were worried that the tranquil spaciousness of the sublime might turn off audiences accustomed to the hectic quotidian jabber of normal Broadway practice. Van Kampen’s jerky and erratic script busies itself with facile jokes while touching an all-too-familiar set of bases; John Dove’s flatly staged production adds no extra dimension to it. The diction and behavior seem arranged to assure the public that life at the eighteenth-century Spanish court resembled life in a Starbucks today, only with periwigs.

George Frederick Handel, who provided the hit songs that Davies renders so feelingly, gives the lie to that notion. Life in an eighteenth-century European court, in Madrid or elsewhere, was no more like ordinary city life today than Handel’s arias are like this week’s Top 40 playlist. As a result, the event suffers constant bumps as it switches back and forth between Handel’s ornate sweetness and today’s blunt behavior. For those who view the Handel arias merely as period accessories, that may be less important. From a Broadway marketer’s standpoint, in which a countertenor is strictly a curiosity, the show exists not so that Davies can regale us with his gorgeous singing, but as an excuse to display the skills of the star who embodies the second title role, Mark Rylance.

Rylance is an actor of nonstop energy and inventiveness who can carry, within the limits of his extremely self-aware approach, great conviction. He’s always fun to watch; he can move you even while you see him smilingly shift gears to get to his emotional moments. A Stanislavskyite might call his method fakery, but it always has an underlying passion — the desire to entertain at all costs. And Van Kampen, who is married to Rylance, has written him a role that offers seemingly innumerable opportunities for exactly the kind of grandstanding that is his specialty.

Philip V (1683–1746), the French-born king of Spain, whom Van Kampen calls by the French form of his name, Philippe, was an erratic ruler whose reign could at best be called problematic. (Historians credit him with some modest achievements but few great ones. The grandson of Louis XIV of France, Philippe often seemed more concerned with keeping Spain subordinate to his fatherland than with improving its welfare or enhancing its glory.) Though probably not as openly lunatic as Van Kampen paints him, Philippe was, notoriously, a manic depressive, afflicted with prolonged spells of severe melancholia which caused him chronic insomnia. His second wife, Princess Elisabetta of Parma (whom Van Kampen, like the Spanish, calls Isabella), found what seems to have been a perfect alleviation for these attacks: the singing of the castrato soprano Carlo Broschi (1705–1782), better known by his stage name, Farinelli.

The Italian custom of castrating prepubescent boys with promising vocal ability, so that their childhood treble voices would never break, was an aberration that persisted for a remarkably long time. The last notable castrato, Alessandro Moreschi (1858–1922), lived long enough to leave behind a recording, on which you can hear him eerily wailing “Ave Maria.” Moreschi’s castration, unlike that of his predecessors, seems to have had medical justifications. But the practice that flourished in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italy was largely a matter of victimizing poor children, who underwent the hideous operation because their families hoped to profit from the resulting vocal splendor.

The operation was illegal, and officially disapproved of. When the British musicologist Charles Burney — father of Fanny Burney, England’s first important woman novelist — toured the continent to research his monumental General History of Music, he visited all the major Italian music centers, trying to find out how the operation was done; in each city, they suggested he look elsewhere. Even so, castrati and the highly stylized “serious operas” in which they sang leading roles became the rage of Europe. Like the female sopranos who sang opposite them, the castrati filled the news-sheets of the era with gossip about their feuds, temper tantrums, and jaw-droppingly huge salaries. Very much like today’s pop stars, they were invited everywhere, lionized by the elite, and showered with costly gifts and adulation.

Farinelli differed from most other castrati in coming from a good family — well-established musicians with aristocratic connections. His polished manners, articulate intelligence, and skill at politicking apparently served him well both in his public singing career and when he took his strange role at Philip’s court (nominally as master of the king’s chamber music), after which he never sang in public again. For nine years, he sang Philip to sleep with a nightly program of selected arias. When Philip died, Farinelli retained his role as musical courtier to King Ferdinand, a music lover whose wife, Barbara of Portugal, was almost a fanatic for the art. She imported Alessandro Scarlatti to give the court harpsichord lessons, and much of what we know about Scarlatti today comes from Farinelli’s letters of this period; apparently Farinelli and Barbara often sang duets, with her royal husband accompanying them on the keyboard. Farinelli left the court only when Ferdinand’s unmusical half-brother, Charles III, succeeded him as king. He retired to Bologna, carrying among his valuable effects paintings by Velázquez and Murillo, as well as a Stradivarius violin.

Most of this intriguing material is not in Van Kampen’s play, which, despite its title, focuses far more heavily on Philippe than on his court warbler. Amid all the occasions she gives for Rylance to show the king veering from perfect lucidity to mad raving and back, the best she can offer poor Farinelli is an old-fashioned triangle, in which he loves but dare not approach Philippe’s queen. The notion is not without a historical basis — it was rumored at the time, and many scholars have descanted on its plausibility — but it’s also painfully stale dramatically, especially arriving on Broadway the week after Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, which features a similarly trite triangle. Mercifully, Davies is spared all connection with this hokum: He merely has to enter every time Sam Crane, who plays the speaking half of Farinelli, opens his mouth pretending to sing, so that Davies can pour his heart out in glorious Handelian song. The mournful Lascia ch’io pianga (“Let me weep”) from Rinaldo is Davis’s big showstopper, but even more breathtaking, for me, was his Bel contento (“Fair contentment”) from Flavio, sung passionately at top speed, with immaculately precise ornamentation.

Within the threadbare materials that Van Kampen has left for everyone other than Rylance and Davis, most of the others, including Crane, do well enough, with Colin Hurley, as the crusty and overburdened London theater manager from whom the queen steals Farinelli, a particular standout. The lone puzzlement, probably a case of clumsy writing and overstated direction leading the actor astray, is Edward Peel’s lumpish rendering of the conniving Spanish prime minister, shouting his lines like a Trump loyalist at a rally. You need only imagine how badly a recital by Davies would go over at today’s White House to realize how wrongheaded this is. Music hath no charms to soothe such savage breasts.

Farinelli and the King
Belasco Theatre 
111 West 44th Street

Through March 25, 2018