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Duel Monarchy

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on February 15, 2015 at 10:26 am

Review – Farinelli and the King (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Thursday 12 February 2015)

Philippe V – Mark Rylance
Farinelli – Sam Crane & Iestyn Davies
Isabella Farnese – Melody Grove
De la cuadra – Edward Peel
Doctor José Cervi
Mestatasio – Colin Hurley

Musicians – John Crockatt (Violin); Arngeir Hauksson (Lute/Recorder); Jonathan Byers (Cello)

Director – John Dove
Designer – Jonathan Fensom
Choreographer – Siân Williams

Robert Howarth (Musical Director & Harpsichord)
Claire van Kampen (Writer)

The Wanamaker Playhouse is making a name for itself in terms of combining original drama and music. And their latest venture, Farinelli and the King, is a jewel of a production.

Written by Claire van Kampen, and clearly with her husband Mark Rylance in mind, it tells the story of how Farinelli was persuaded to give up the stage and travel to Madrid. At the request of Isabella Farnese, she believed his singing would alleviate Philip V of Spain’s depression.

It’s a perfect story to relate in a venue such as this theatre – van Kampen’s flexible yet direct writing enabled the intimacy of the relationships to shine. In well-crafted and elegant dialogue, the writer managed to convey not only the historical backdrop of contemporary Madrid as well as a Europe on the verge of war, but also the burgeoning belief of the time that music – and particularly opera – had spiritual and medical as well as entertainment value.

Rylance was a brilliant Philip of Spain. It isn’t so much that he skillfully steers from depression and anxiety back to recovery, but even when officially “well” there remained a real sense of human frailty and fear.

And he is right when he observes early on that Farinelli is as much a monarch as he. Not only in the sense of an adoring and loyal public but as well that his life was pre-ordained – for Philip as Louis XIV’s grandson and for Farinelli, from the moment the knife was applied. And as the singer, Sam Crane too captured that human frailty behind the popular mask. Their first meeting, a veritable duel of words and wits – both sharp and threatening – was well-penned by van Kampen.

The remaining cast was strongly cast, led by Melody Grove as the King’s suffering Queen. Her desperation to cure her husband was tangible as was the fear that she felt for her menacing spouse. However, I am not sure that I buy the clinch between castrato and Queen – especially as she eventually had him banished from court. And I particularly liked the grasping nature of Metatastio – again I am not sure it is based on actual reality but it provided a welcome emotional contrast.

But of course I admit that I was there for Iestyn Davies – and he did not disappoint. From the moment he began to sing Porpora’s Alto giove – a favourite aria of mine – he enraptured the audience. Vocally he was completely stunning – with beautifully controlled singing. Not only did he throw off the coloratura of Venti, turbini, prestate with complete authority but he also mesmerised in the slower numbers. Never has Cara sposa sounded so emotionally wrought as it did that evening. I just wish that the programme had listed all the arias.

But the highlight of the evening was the closing scene. Having retired to Italy, it was left to Farinelli to reminisce, and for Iestyn Davies to deliver a haunting and heartrending performance Lascia ch’io pianga that had many of the audience – including myself – in tears.

It was as if truly – as Philip of Spain had desired – that we were listening to the music of the stars.

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  1. […] not all were strictly speaking concerts. The two that remain most vivid in my memory are Farinelli and the King and Joyce DiDonato’s […]

  2. […] world, he has a stratospheric, bright and flexible voice with a distinct timbre that, like Iestyn Davies, sets him apart. It was an impressive debut. Clearly there is work still to do and I hope that he […]

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