This is what they mean by theater magic: the spellbinding performance of a great actor in a fairytale setting, leaving the audience besotted with melancholy and joy. Mark Rylance’s predictably triumphant return to the Broadway stage as the mad monarch in Farinelli and the King is a major event.
Ironically, given Rylance’s fame (at London’s Globe in many luminous Shakespeare productions, on film in Bridge of Spies, on television in Wolf Hall), this is a play, written by Rylance’s wife Claire van Kampen, about the terrors of celebrity. To be a king (in this period drama, he plays Philippe V of Spain, grandson of Louis XIV) is to have been assigned an identity crisis; that the historic Philippe V was nuts — what we would now probably call bipolar (he talks to his goldfish and he bites) — literalizes and exaggerates the existential problem: the distress of duality, the inner self at odds with the external self.
Farinelli suffers, but with opposite symptoms: He is numb since his castration when he was 10 years old. Since then the 18th-century castrato’s singing was internationally worshipped, but he leaves his stage — never to sing in public again — to heal the king at Queen Isabella’s request, just as the king leaves his court to live in the forest and converse with the stars and hear the music of the spheres.
And so the play is a meditation on identity. And on the healing power of music. And on the human relation to the cosmos. And on the actor’s relation to his character. And on the performer’s relation to his audience (there is one merry moment when Rylance looks out at us and wonders aloud, “Who are all these people?”).
And, besides all this to munch on, Farinelli and the King is enchanting to look at, with opulent costumes and picture-book fake scenery. The stage of the Belasco Theatre has been rebuilt to imitate the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at the Globe, with wooden proscenium and onstage balconies, and, most magical of all, chandeliers filled with candles.
One of the initial problems the production had to solve is that the character Farinelli has to sing several Handel arias, requiring a major operatic voice. So while Sam Crane plays the sweet and modest young man Farinelli, the much-admired countertenor Iestyn Davies steps onto the stage to sing as the star Farinelli. They are both dressed identically, and are similar enough in height and appearance to both persuade us and further the identity dilemma. (James Hall will sing in some of the performances.) Paradoxically, the best acting happens without dialogue, as Rylance listens, transported, to the heavenly voice.
Farinelli and Queen Isabella (Melody Grove) fall sadly in love, while the court’s hugely bewigged chief minister (Edward Peel) tries to force an abdication: betrayal everywhere.
The lyrics to the sublime aria Lascia ch’io pianga, or Leave Me to Weep, create a perfect gloss to the show’s melancholy conclusion:
Leave the thorn, take the rose;
you go searching for your pain.
Gray frost by hidden hand
will come when your heart doesn't expect it.
The last scene of Farinelli and the King is achingly beautiful, one of those rare theater experiences in which you feel yourself to be in the presence of so much truth and beauty that you want to see it all over again.
Farinelli and the King. Through March 7 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, New York.