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The Most Famous Castrato of Them All is at the Center of a New Broadway Play

January 25, 2018

It’s a wintery night on Broadway. People are bundled up scurrying about beneath an enormous glowing sign proclaiming that The Lion King is still roaring and the bright-bulb marquees of hit shows like Dear Evan Hansen.

The audiences that enter the Belasco Theatre on 44th Street, however, find themselves stepping into a very different realm — the world of the 18th century and its most glorious musical manifestation, the Baroque opera. And as they make their way to their seats (either in the house or special boxes on stage) an ensemble of musicians (playing period instruments) are tuning up while servants in gold silk livery light the multiple candle chandeliers and footlights that illuminate the production.

The play is Farinelli and the King by Claire van Kampen starring Mark Rylance as the mentally unhinged monarch, Phillip V of Spain, and Sam Crane as the superstar Italian castrato, Carlo Farinelli (who was born Carlo Broschi in 1705 in Apulia, Italy).

It’s a play about madness, the sublime nature of music as an instrument of healing, and the heavy weight of a crown that comes with monarchy or stardom. It is a fascinating drama that shares a great deal in common with Amadeus and The Madness of King George.

The play does, however, face one unique obstacle, in that castratos are not readily available and even the most ardent method actors are not willing to make that level of sacrifice for their art.

The nearest modern equivalent is the countertenor. And through a skillful piece of double casting, Sam Crane acts the role of Farinelli while Iestyn Davies (a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music who has worked with both Thomas Adés and Nico Muhly) sings the succession of arias that are sprinkled like stars throughout the performance, including a deus ex machina entrance that climaxes Act One.

The play (which was originally presented at Shakespeare’s Globe in London) begins with Rylance trying to hook a goldfish that’s swimming around in a glass bowl. It quickly becomes apparent that the King’s mental state is as fragile as the bowl and as slippery as the fish it contains. One moment he can be rational, the next deranged, paranoid, and violent. Debilitated by his condition, the King has been neglecting his royal responsibilities, which greatly concerns the members of his court and his wife, Isabella Farnese, who is played with equal parts compassion and frustration by Melody Grove.

At the same time, in London, Farinelli is at the height of his fame, though as weighed down by his stardom and emotional trauma as the King is by his mental condition and regal status. It is Isabella, after hearing the divine nature of Farinelli’s voice, who decides to bring the two men together. Her hope is that Farinelli’s singing will have a medicinal effect on her husband.  To obtain his services, she makes theater manager John Rich (Simon Jones) an economic offer he cannot refuse, thus providing Rich’s theater with a fresh budget that will avoid another revival of The Beggars Opera.

Farinelli and the King are both hesitant upon their first meeting. But just as in the wonderful scene in Amadeus when Salieri first perceives the nature of Mozart’s genius, Phillip becomes enchanted by the purity and vocal dexterity of Farinelli’s voice, which was said to have had a vocal range of three octaves and an ability to hold a single note for up to 2½ minutes.

As Davies sings “Alto Giove” from Polifemo by Nicola Porpora (a work the composer/teacher created for his former student, Farinelli), the effect on the King is a magical transformation of the spirit. The relationship that develops from that moment (and lasted five years) becomes the dramatic foundation upon which Van Kampen’s play rests — a complex interweaving of historic fact and dramatic license that combines moments of quicksilver wit and audience pleasing comedy, with quixotic bursts of raw emotion and behind the scenes political intrigue. It’s all skillfully directed by John Dove.

In researching the play Van Kampen became interested in recent scientific studies conducted by Dr. Concetta Tomaino, co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in Mount Vernon, NY. The institute’s programs include research, education and training programs, which use music therapy to assist the “awakening and healing” of individuals with a wide range of neurological conditions including strokes, trauma, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease.

“There’s an inherent dynamic between the performer and the receiver,” Dr. Tomaino observes, “especially in the case where it’s a salon in a private room, very intimate, with a lot of face-to-face contact.” Taken in this context Farinelli’s relationship with King Philip becomes one of artist, friend, confidant, and physician.  

In addition to its involving story and the masterful (if sometimes over-the-top) performance by Rylance, Farinelli and the King is introducing entirely new audiences to the beauty of baroque opera and the unique timbres of the countertenor voice. And to leave them humming, the show ends beautifully with Davies singing Handel’s dulcet, lamenting aria, “Lascia, ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo.

Top that Lion King!

Farinelli and the King is currently scheduled to play through March 25 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 44th Street. For tickets: (844) 379-0370.

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).