This gentle play with music is essentially a vehicle for two of the world’s greatest talents, actor Mark Rylance and operatic countertenor Iestyn Davies, both the very best at what they do, and at the peak of their talents. Rylance stars as King Philippe V of Spain, at a point in his life where he is plagued with what we would today call mental illness, some mix of depression and delusion.
Enter Farinelli (born as Carlo Broschi, played by Sam Crane and sung by Davies), brought in by Queen Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove). Farinelli sings, and the king’s spirit significantly lifts. Call it music therapy, centuries before the fact.
Rylance is of course the main draw here, and he is unsurprisingly magnificent. Some people call him mannered, but I think the way in which he applies his undeniable mannerisms is masterful and deeply intelligent. It is to me what great acting should be, the actor’s own personality and / or persona applied with precise thought and detail – and deep emotion and vulnerability – to the given circumstances of the piece.
Davies singing, however, is the soul of this love letter to the power of music, and he is every bit as terrific. He may be physically incapable of replicating Farinelli’s unearthly castrato voice, but he is without a doubt as subtle and feeling a musical interpreter as the man he plays. He sings Handel almost exclusively here, and I would have liked to have heard more by Porpora (Farinelli’s mentor, who gets the only non-Handel aria here), or even better composers like Hasse or Vinci, who are undeservedly forgotten today, but very important at the time. Still, there is no denying that Davies caressing Handel’s gorgeous “Lascia, ch’io pianga” is the perfect way to close the evening.
John Dove’s marvelous staging, set among Jonathan Fensom’s sumptuous set and costumes, rises to the level of his collaborators. I have a minor quibble with the script itself, which falters toward the end with an entirely non-historical love triangle between the two titular characters and the queen. It rings false, and breaks the gentle spell that the show casts until that point. It’s really unnecessary. It also contributes to the general error in the portrayal of Isabella Farnese, a far more formidable figure than suggested by the sentimental way the role is written. Not a big problem, though. A real pleasure of a show, and recommended.
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To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.