One of my most popular posts on this blog has been a short piece on the castrato Farinelli and the music therapy he undertook for Philippe V of Spain. So what could be more exciting than a play entitled Farinelli and the King? Taking place in a reconstructed 17th-century theatre? Featuring arias that Farinelli himself sung? Starring countertenor Iestyn Davies as the singing voice of Farinelli? Human spontaneous combustion!!
This is what I experienced last night at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (the new indoor addition to Shakespeare's Globe in London). The play was written by Claire van Kampen, and also stars her husband, Mark "Wolf Hall" Rylance as King Philippe, Melody Grove as his Queen, and Sam Crane as the acted part of Farinelli. (More on those two Farinellis later!)
So, where to begin? Let's start with the magical space of the theatre itself. I was dying to see this even before I heard about Farinelli and the King. But this was the nearest I was going to get to a night (or day) at the theatre in the 17th or 18th century. It's exquisitely beautiful. Wooden galleries, columns and benches. Gilded décor. A musicians' gallery with a harpsichord. Some audience members had seats above the stage, virtually in the band, which would have been a great spot to show off your finery back in the day. And speaking of finery, while the cast and musicians were the only ones in actual 18th-century dress, I had decided to dress for the occasion by wearing a silk ball gown and wig (well, felted Elflocks anyway). It made me feel so much more a part of it, as I was in standing room at the back of the upper gallery, pressed up against the barrier. I could quite easily picture myself in a scene from the 1994 film Farinelli Il Castrato. I didn't actually swoon, but I was most definitely in raptures!
I very much enjoyed Sam Crane's portrayal of Carlo Broschi, better known as Farinelli. Although he didn't create the kind of delicate speaking voice Stefano Dionisi does in the film, he was in all other ways exactly as I imagine the historical Farinelli to be: kind, gentle, modest despite his fame, and a little bit vulnerable. Very much like my Carlo in my current project, the Angelio Trilogy. (Incidentally, unlike Claire van Kampen, who says in the theatre programme for Farinelli and the King, "I can't say I thought the film was a good one," I think Farinelli Il Castrato is a very good film, beautiful and full of symbolism. It just isn't a biopic of Farinelli, but rather uses him as a figure to explore issues facing the castrati in general and to tell a moving tale of two brothers). He (Sam Crane) and Iestyn Davies wore matching costumes (right down to the rings!) and subtly shared the performance, Sam stepping back when Iestyn had to sing and vice versa.
I have to say, I am quite a fan of Iestyn Davies, but when he sang last night, I felt I was actually hearing Farinelli. His stance, his gestures, the way he looked up to the galleries, his ornamentation... And the arias, most of which I could have sung along with had I wanted to ruin the performance! I knew this was as close as I would ever get to actually hearing the real Farinelli sing. The result was complete ecstasy. I said in the interval that I wished I had roses to throw. But when, in the second half, the character of Farinelli spoke of the emptiness of standing onstage, crushing hundreds of thrown roses under his feet, I felt it wouldn't perhaps have been sensitive towards his feelings. This makes me feel that there were two Farinellis onstage in more ways than one, the public and private. Iestyn Davies was the Divine Farinelli, sending me into raptures with his song, and Sam Crane was carissimo Carlo, inviting sympathy and friendship. Both halves made me fall in love with Farinelli more than ever.