Farinelli and the King (Wanamaker Playhouse, 11 February 2015)
Plays in which characters spontaneously burst into song are of course nothing new, but a play featuring lovely Baroque tunes sung by an actual singer – well, that’s hard to resist. I had only seen the film after I became interested in Baroque opera so it was a rather underwhelming experience. Likewise, the many ball jokes in this play (no connection with the film) started to grate after a while.
Farinelli: Sam Crane
Castrato: Iestyn Davies/William Purefoy
Doctor Jose Cervi: Huss Garbiya
Isabella Farnese: Melody Grove
Metastasio: Colin Hurley
Philippe V: Mark Rylance
De la Cuadra: Edward Peel
The play imagines the relationship between Farinelli, as the great superstar singer of the 18th century, and the King of Spain. Not so much a clement monarch, in the play the King of Spain was a man trapped by his position. In a sense, so was Farinelli. We could speculate what exactly made him leave behind a life of adulation for a quiet existence as the caged bird of an eccentric (trading a cage for another?). It could have been he wanted to get away from the continuous pressures of performance in front of fickle audiences, as the play implies. When you’re the best people have the highest expectations from you and off days are unforgivable. The King needed him specifically whereas the public could find another object of adulation. Being needed in itself can be a great motivation and so on. Records show this was mostly fiction, as Farinelli seemed to have enjoyed his 22 year long tenure as singer/music master at the Spanish Court. But that wouldn’t make much of a story.
The play started with the King behaving in a strange manner to the exasperation of his doting Queen, his scheming minister (De la Cuadra) and his experiment-minded doctor. I thought it was a bit of a rough start, with the actors taking a while to warm up and the writing itself sort of awkward. It wasn’t explained why the King didn’t simply abdicate if he hated his role. It felt like he stayed on so as to stick it to his scheming minister. So he was majorly frustrated and took refuge in self neglect and semi-fantasy amidst insomnia. It is implied a few times during the play that the Spanish weren’t used to fine entertainment, which would make the king (a Frenchman) not mad as much as deadly bored.
Cue in the best entertainment money could buy in 1737. We’ve heard Beyonce has sung privately for one or two dictators, but, lucky for her, she wasn’t invited to stay for an indefinite amount of time. Farinelli was, for better or worse.
Whatever I thought about the script or about the acting, once Iestyn Davies stepped on stage and the music started things improved. The Wanamaker Playhouse is a tiny space where you can see and hear everything no matter where you’re sitting, which is around the stage. I had a seat behind a pillar in the Upper Gallery and couldn’t complain about either, though my seatmate on the left could’ve been a bit more accomodating. But him and his friends were rather stiff types (he was a bit late and I was sharply told, as I took my seat, that there was someone else sitting there as well. It’s not like I wouldn’ve denied him his seat once he returned…). Speaking of lateness, I rushed there with minutes to spare but others, in the row immediately behind us, made it in about 10min or so into the play, causing everybody to get up and noisly shuffled into their seats. The seats themselves are narrow and there’s barely any legroom. Lucky are the short and small boned, one of which is yours truly.
But this tiny space has a wonderfully intimate atmosphere and the prevalent wood cradles the voice. A violin, a cello, a harpsichord, a lute and a voice are all you need for a good time. I had no doubts Davies would not disappoint and he didn’t. His gentle and sensitive voice filled the space just right. It wasn’t a recital as such, the singing wasn’t flashy (as much as Baroque singing can be subdued and still be idiomatically Baroque) but rather integrated within the play. I remember lovely playing from the cello in general and a very assured take on Venti, turbini from the violin.
I’d say the play was all right, with much vaguely philosophical noodling from the King. Rylance didn’t impress me greatly; he seemed a tad bored or in any case passionless, which only accentuated the feeling of noodliness in the text. It could be argued that the king was under some sort of sedation and depression is by definition the atithesis of passion. But that’s not how the character was supposed to come off, judging by the text. Frustration, rather than plain depression, was what I gleaned from the text.
Farinelli himself wasn’t explored in as much depth as the second main character stature would imply. Who was he? He appeared as a kind celebrity given to generosity of spirit and a sudden love of gardening. It is implied that he simply wanted to help his fellow human so much he accepted a loss of freedom and even of celebrity status. Though he and the Queen get a little too attached to one another in their common quest for helping the King, he declines to take things further out of a sense of duty. Briefly put, a proper saint. But saints aren’t exactly gripping characters (especially when they gently fade instead of being torn apart by rabid camels).
The one character who came off vividly was Metastasio, as the witty narrator. It’s not hard to imagine the most influential librettist of the 18th century as wry and down-to-earth. The legend, after all, says he was discovered whilst entertaining onlookers with his impromptu rhymes – so hip-hop in spirit it hurts. In this play the character brought levity and a balancing sense of realism without having to clown around (unlike De la Cuadra). I don’t think it comes off a surprise that I’d like to see a play – with music – based on his life.
In spite of its shortcomings, I had a quaint good time and am eagerly waiting to return to the Wanamaker Playhouse tomorrow for Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. It seems like a venue made for this kind of thing.
The other good thing last evening was finally meeting fellow Baroque lover Leander. Yes, we finally met and had a whirlwind of a chat about the play and (Baroque) opera in general afterwards – with glances at the cast, who were celebrating in the same next door bar. Reminds me going to performances on your own is fun but having someone with whom to disect it afterwards is even better 🙂
The play runs until 8 March with Davies singing all but one of the February dates and Purefoy singing all but one of the March ones.