Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Farinelli and the King @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

11 February - 7 March 2015

Mark Rylance(Photo: Marc Brenner)

Mark Rylance
(Photo: Marc Brenner)

In Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre the hero exclaims, after being reunited with his daughter, that he can hear ‘the music of the spheres’ – in Claire van Kampen’s play about the effect of the castrato Farinelli’s singing upon Philippe V of Spain, the enraptured king orders the creation of a rural paradise where he can both see and hear the stars in motion, inspired by Farinelli’s art. In Mark Rylance’s portrayal of the ailing king, it’s possible to believe in such things, especially when the music provided is mostly composed by Handel.

The Spanish king’s almost life-long suffering with what seems to have been bi-polar disorder and his unshakeable conviction that, to quote Shakespeare once more, ‘In sweet music is such art, / Killing care and grief of heart / Fall asleep, or hearing, die’ makes for a wonderful dramatic subject, and the play tells a straightforward story of two very different men with one crucial unifying facet to their natures – both had been unnaturally called to their occupations, the king by being given the role by his grandfather and the singer by castration.

As you might expect, Rylance makes you feel that you are in the room with the king, aided naturally by the theatre’s intimate size and its atmospheric candlelight. Those who are enthralled with Wolf Hall on TV at the moment will recognise this actor’s special quality of seeming to be completely self-absorbed, yet finely in tune with everything around him. He’s supported by a fine cast, with Colin Hurley’s Metastasio a particularly vivid assumption and Melody Grove’s Isabella making the most of a not especially rewarding role.

The part of Farinelli is sung by Iestyn Davies and acted by Sam Crane; there is nothing of the expected flamboyance in the latter’s performance, that quality being entirely reserved for the singing, so much so that I wondered if Davies might not have been able to take on both, given his ability in opera? It was a joy to hear the arias sung with such brilliance of execution and flair in interpretation, especially those from Handel’s Rinaldo. Despite its terrifying demands, Iestyn must have found it a breeze (!) to sing Venti,Turbini standing before us in gold brocade, given that the last time some of us heard him perform this aria he was merrily cresting the clouds on a boneshaker in the Glyndebourne production.

Farinelli is not really associated with Handel at all, the composer’s favourite having been Senesino, but it’s easy to see why the three arias from Rinaldo were used, since they not only display the qualities of the voice to perfection but they suit the play’s various moods; whilst it might seem odd that ‘Cara Sposa’ (one of Rinaldo’s arias) and ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ (Almirena) would be sung by the same person, the emotions of each are perfectly in tune with the drama. The play itself tells a great story and is acted with meticulous commitment, although for me the humour did not come across as vividly as it clearly did for some others.

The historian John Hawkins wrote of Farinelli that “…his shake was just, and sweet beyond expression” and praised his “clear articulation of divisions and quick passages…” All those qualities are found in abundance in Iestyn Davies’ singing, and he is given poetic, virtuosic support from John Crockatt (baroque violin), Jonathan Byers (‘cello), Arngeir Hauksson (lute / recorder) under Robert Howarth who directs from the harpsichord with his accustomed verve. It all adds up to yet another memorable evening in this most beautiful of small candle-lit rooms.

Details of further concerts can be found here.

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