Farinelli and the King: Claire van Kampen

Farinelli and the King

★★★★

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, February-March 2015)

One of the most anticipated productions of the season, Claire van Kampen’s new play explores the relationship between two men who have been elevated above their peers through no desire of their own: two sacred monsters, if you will, forced at a young age to adopt a way of life that they can never put aside.

Everything in this world has its shadow.

Philip V (Mark Rylance) is the Bourbon King of Spain, a Frenchman placed at the head of a foreign kingdom by the will of his grandfather Louis XIV. Wearied by the demands of his position and crippled by bouts of terrible depression, Philip slips into a melancholy from which nothing can rouse him – the remedies of his doctor Jose Cervi (Huss Garbiya) prove just as ineffective as the love of his wife Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove). It looks as though the king is lost in dreams and delusions, while his minister De la Cuadra (Edward Peel) quietly gathers the reins of power behind his back.

Isabella is at a loss; but then an idea occurs to her. She travels to London; then to Vienna, where she appeals to the poet Metastasio (Colin Hurley) for his help in securing the service of his friend, the singer Farinelli (Sam Crane). At this point it’s 1737. Farinelli is thirty-two: the most celebrated, successful and adored singer in the world. He’s making a fortune from singing in London; but Isabella’s appeal moves him, and he agrees (to Metastasio’s indignation) to come to Spain. There, king and singer find themselves in a curious equality: the king can lay aside his crown and become a man again, moved by the power and simplicity of music. The singer dares to believe that he is needed for himself, as a human being, as Carlo Broschi. At last he can shrug off the suffocating weight of being Farinelli: that glittering monstrosity who can command the adoration of thousands, but whose world offers no respite. But as time goes on, one begins to wonder whether he may have simply exchanged one gilded cage for another. (At one point Isabella gives him a gift of a mechanical bird in a cage; when wound up, it sings. Farinelli’s expression on seeing the present is priceless: here is his own fate, in microcosm.)

Many of you will know that I’ve been looking forward to this play ever since I heard of its existence last summer and it was a great pleasure to go along to the first night and see the immensely warm response: the most energetic applause I’ve yet seen for a production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, complete with lots of bravos, standing ovations and drumming of feet. It’s a wonderful, challenging story to have taken on and Claire van Kampen’s script strikes a good balance: explaining what the castrati are, for those in the audience who are less familiar with them, while avoiding the temptation to drown us with exposition. Mark Rylance (her husband) is reliably fluid and spontaneous as always in the role of the troubled king, giving the impression that Philip is speaking off the top of his head rather than performing from a script. He conveys a pathos which is necessary if we’re to care about Philip: Rylance manages to suggest that beneath the rages and absurdities there is a rational, dignified man looking out, wondering when it all went wrong.

From the opening scene he had the audience in the palm of his hand, as we find him futilely fishing in a goldfish bowl. It’s comic, but Rylance changes the shading of his voice ever so slightly here and there to suggest the deep tragedy beneath the humour. Acting opposite him must be a total nightmare, of course, because it’s very hard to match his easy naturalism, but the rest of the cast did very well: I was particularly taken by Melody Grove’s Isabella, whose affection for her afflicted husband sits alongside a growing sense of frustration. Colin Hurley’s Metastasio was wonderful – I have a deep fondness for Metastasio (I’m reading his letters at the moment), and perhaps Hurley was more sarcastic and less mellifluous than expected, but he was a joy to watch. I wish there had been more of him.

Farinelli and the King

Isabella (Melody Grove), Philip V (Mark Rylance) and Farinelli (Sam Crane) ©Alastair Muir

But the main question with this play was always going to be: but what about Farinelli? When I heard that Iestyn Davies and William Purefoy would be sharing the role*, I was thrilled that music was going to play such a key role (as indeed it had to); and to have a singer of Davies’s calibre involved was terrifically exciting. I was then puzzled to see Sam Crane billed as Farinelli too. In the end, he acted the role and for the arias was joined on stage by (in this case) Davies in the same clothes, who stepped out to the front and took over. In terms of the acting, Crane has a bit of a poisoned chalice because the key thing about Farinelli was that he was terribly nice. If you’re playing someone whose main characteristics are modesty and being a jolly good sort, then it’s hard to give them the kind of dramatic impact that you can if they’re a temperamental diva.

However, what the play – and Crane – does well is to suggest that beneath this courteous, obliging exterior there’s a man haunted by his own success; embittered by the memory of his own brother arranging for his castration at the age of ten; worn out by the strain not only of playing the roles he performs on stage, but of playing the role of his own alter ego. The glamour of Farinelli offers Carlo a mask to wear against the world, but it’s also a heavy, cumbersome thing: like the armour he remembers having to wear in a London performance. The debut was a triumph, but he doesn’t remember it like that: he remembers the panic he felt at not being able to see clearly through the helmet and the terror that his voice would choke on the heavy perfume of the flowers thrown to welcome him. It’s a psychologically astute treatment of a historical figure who remains tantalisingly elusive.

Farinelli and the King

Farinelli doubled: Iestyn Davies sings as Sam Crane waits in the background

As to the doubling-up of the role… I’ve been thinking about this and actually I’m beginning to see that it’s an astute dramatic choice. First, it’s the best possible solution when you can’t have one person acting and singing. The alternative would’ve been to have Davies singing from backstage and that wouldn’t have worked well: Crane would have had to mime some pretty tricky arias, we wouldn’t have been able to see Davies in action, and you might as well have had the arias on tape. At least this way we had the sheer pleasure of seeing Davies in a space more intimate than any opera house or concert hall could offer. He seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, poised at the front of the stage in wig and frock coat, one hand propped on his hip; the audience hanging breathless on his every note. But it’s also a very clever way of representing the duality within the character – the man Carlo versus the ‘star’ Farinelli. More on that below.

As to the arias, we had Acio’s aria Alto Giove from Porpora’s Polifemo (it was the one aria you could guarantee was going to be in it), Almirena’s Lascia ch’io pianga from Handel’s Rinaldo, Rinaldo’s own arias Cara sposa and Venti turbini from the same opera and (I think; forgive me if I have this wrong) Poro’s aria Generoso risvegliati o core from Hasse’s Cleofide. I’d heard Davies perform Alto Giove on Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago, but I hadn’t heard him sing any of the others before and I’d been interested to see how he’d do with the flashier arias, because the CDs I have by him are very much geared towards slower, purer arias. And I must say that I enjoyed it all immensely: his Venti turbini was superb and his voice was extremely well-suited to those intimate, warm acoustics.**

There were a few things which didn’t quite work for me (spoilers ahead). First, I wasn’t convinced by the suggestion of a romance, or even a romantic understanding, between Farinelli and Isabella. I felt as if it had been put in to meet audience expectations rather than because it was true to the characters: I felt the ménage might have been more powerful if the subtle potential for such feelings had been preserved, rather than making them explicit. And it slightly undermines the fact that (as far as I’m aware, and I could be wrong) Farinelli was almost the only castrato who isn’t known to have been involved in any romantic intrigues. I also felt the play petered out a little with the final section set in Bologna, which seemed to lose the strong dramatic drive of the rest of the action.

Having said that, I thought the concluding moments were gorgeous: the perfect way to bring it to a close, as the retired singer is convinced to perform one final aria. Davies strides onto the stage, resplendent and the theatre is filled with the sweet, pure agony of Lascia ch’io pianga. Afterwards Davies as Farinelli (in full frock-coated splendour) pauses for a moment beside Crane as Carlo (in humble house-coat and night-cap). The two look into one another’s eyes: two facets of the same man – and then Farinelli smiles slightly, rests his hand on Carlo’s shoulder, and vanishes forever. There was a bit of a lump in my throat, I admit.

Perhaps I can’t be fully objective with a subject that’s so close to my heart, but I found this a thoughtful and powerful exploration of the relationship between patron and artist, king and singer, captor and captive – and between the outer and inner man. The production values were typically sumptuous, with gorgeous historically-accurate costumes (you see: I didn’t even remember to speak of the costumes!) and splendid music (how they got that harpsichord up onto the gallery, I’ll never know). It’s an exciting concept and one that I hope will be explored more in the future: and this is precisely the right venue to experiment with such blends of acting and song. I suppose many of the people who go to this play will be Globe regulars rather than Baroque geeks, and I’d love to know what the reaction to the singing was from those less familiar with the voice type. Judging from the applause at the end and the comments I heard as I left: enraptured. Let’s hope it will be filmed.

Farinelli and the King

Philip V (Mark Rylance) fishing in a goldfish bowl

It was very exciting to finally get to meet the lovely Dehggial at this performance after our near-miss at Poppea, so pop over to Opera, innit for another take on the show (broadly similar to mine, I’m pleased to see).

* I saw the play for a second time on 14 February with William Purefoy singing the role of Farinelli. His voice sounds slightly richer than Davies’s but he is less experienced and that did come through at some points. He seemed a little nervous at the start with Alto Giove but after the interval his voice sounded much warmer, stronger and more assured. His Cara sposa and Lascia ch’ io pianga were beautifully handled: the intimate space allowed him to sing with a sensitivity and delicacy which would have been lost in a full-sized opera house, but which here had people leaning forward from the galleries, hardly daring to breathe. Really very well done. The play as a whole flowed more easily than it did on Wednesday: the cast seemed more confident with each other and the Farinelli / Isabella question troubled me less, perhaps because I knew to expect it, but perhaps also because Crane and Grove seemed to have a greater sense of ease with one another. I was also pleased to see more emphasis on the idea that Carlo and Farinelli are distinct aspects of the same man: there were moments where they visibly squared off against one another, but that beautiful moment of farewell at the end remained. Yes, on a second visit those final moments with Lascia ch’ io pianga struck me all over again. It is an excellent ending. Once again there were cheers, whistles, wild applause and foot-drumming. I’m delighted to see it doing so well.

** Farinelli was one of the most dazzling vocal technicians in history. The arias included here are mainly of the gentle type, appropriate for drawing a man out of his melancholy, but if you fancy hearing one of the craziest, most ambitious arias written for Farinelli, sung by one of the closest modern equivalents, lend an ear to this pyrotechnic wonder written by the Saxon composer Hasse.

10 thoughts on “Farinelli and the King: Claire van Kampen

  1. The Idle Woman says:

    Yep. Just wish it hadn't taken me quite so long to figure out why they were doing it. Not that it really troubled me: the minute Iestyn started singing I blanked everyone else on the stage anyway. As I said afterwards, I hadn't been quite sure… but he really did it extremely well. And just imagine how much we'd have had to pay to hear him sing at such close range in a concert hall. 😀 There we go: the Sam Wanamaker is the most cost-efficient way in London to hear Baroque music at close range. They can put that on their posters for the next Cavalli opera they do. 🙂

  2. dehggial says:

    Wasn't the Farinelli soundtrack Farinelli's greatest hits? It's something even non Baroque lovers would recognise.

    No kidding about it being cost efficient. Like I said in my post, this is the perfect type of venue for Baroque. There is no particular reason why perferctly good singers should wreck their voices in large halls when this can be achieved. I'm glad ROH and all recognised the current Baroque trend and found a proper venue for it.

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