Farinelli and The King

Farinelli Drop Cap

Mark Rylance is back on Broadway leading a wonderful cast through the story of Philippe V, the king of Spain, who ruled between 1700-1724 and again, unusually, for a short period after his eldest son, Louis, died of smallpox.

Written by playwright and music arranger Claire Van Kampen, Farinelli and The King revolves around Philippe’s questionable mental faculties, the play follows the court concern and chaos over the king’s apparent insanity (what today would be termed bipolar disorder), eventually leading Isabella, the king’s wife, to journey to London seeking the services of the famous castrato Farinelli to help her husband recover from the debilitating illness that has put his government in disarray.

Farinelli Image 1

Farinelli meets King Philippe.

Farinelli is employed in private service to the king and, indeed, his angelic singing does have an impact on Philippe’s mental stability, calming and comforting him. This recovery leads him to a monumental decision: to leave the royal quarters in Madrid and move into a distant forest, somewhat abandoning his duties, all with Farinelli at his side. The fresh air and living-off-the-land stance help him further until at last he returns to his position as head of state.

The play is quite charming, despite what might seem like dark subject matter. The material remains light and amusing, with contemporary language sprinkled about and more modern manners on display.

The set design is stunning—evoking a solid palace in rich, dark colors and all lushly bathed in candlelight. There was an especially exciting surprise at intermission as the six chandeliers above the stage slowly descended and crew members arrived in period dress to extinguish the burning candles and then change them out, light the new ones and send them back up for the start of Act II. Seeing the function behind the magic is always a treat. The set also allows for a small, live Baroque orchestra as well as audience seating on two levels which permitted the cast to interact with those sitting on the stage.

Of special note is the countertenor (James Hall) who performs Farinelli’s songs. His voice is absolutely angelic.

The play is a relaxing and, at times, surprisingly meditative exploration of the ways music and singing activates the pleasure centers in the brain which release chemicals that can assist healing. Indeed, much scientific work has been done in the last decade which shows the link between music and cognitive functions.

Music calms the savage beast, indeed!