Farinelli on the Great White Way

Farinelli was perhaps the biggest and brightest star of his or any other time, and so it’s only right that at the ripe old age of 312 he has finally made it to Broadway. He’s been dead for 235 of those years, but walk through New York City’s Theater District and be scorched by the vast marquees of Aladdin, The Lion King, Phantom of the Opera, Chicago and other immortal cash cows and you’ll soon realize that the round-the-clock photon bath is not just for the purposes of attracting attention but for keeping the undead warmed-up and limber, even in in the cryogenic conditions of the week just past between Christmas and New Year’s.

Long before he strode the Great White Way, Farinelli was born Carlo Broschi on the Adriatic Coast of southern Italy.  At the age of ten, the family moved to Naples, the opera capital of Europe. There the talented boy soprano studied under Nicola Porpora, later a rival of Handel in London, where Farinelli would reach the apogee of his fame and fortune. The Broschis came from petty nobility and were well-to-do, but when Carlo’s father died unexpectedly in 1717, when Farinelli was twelve, the financial horizons darkened and likely led to the fatal decision to have the prepubescent boy castrated. The unbroken voice that emerged from this barbaric act would eventually attain an astounding power, sustain, finesse, and agility across an unsurpassed range of two-and-a-half octaves.

The origins of Broschi’s stage name of Farinelli are unclear, but the voice that that moniker advertised produced the most lucrative and longed-for sound of the eighteenth century. It was an age when opera was the blockbuster entertainment for monarchs and patricians, and also for the less well off—sitting or standing in different sections of hierarchically laid out theaters from Naples to London to Hamburg to St Petersburg.

Farinelli could outdo a trumpet in all musical parameters according to one of the many anecdotes that accompanied him through his storied career and his long retirement in Spain (where we meet him on Broadway), and eventually back in his native Italy. It was there, outside of Bologna, that the English traveller, Charles Burney visited him and offered one of music history’s most touching prose profiles of an aged celebrity. Farinelli’s haunts his mansion, moving elegantly among portraits of the monarchs he sang for, and passing his time by playing on his sumptuously decorated harpsichords named after the great Italian painters—Raphael, Titian, Correggio, and Guido Reni. Michelangelo (one of the singer’s many middle names) was not among this keyboard retinue, a sign perhaps of Farinelli’s modesty, rare in a figure of his stature. At the time of Burney’s visit in 1770 Farinelli’s legacy was still bigger than life; though he had never heard Farinelli sing, Burney wrote that, “he possessed such powers as never met before, or since, in any one human being; powers that were irresistible, and which must subdue every hearer; the learned and the ignorant, the friend and the foe.”

Burney also recounts in his biographical sketch of 1770 the singer’s retirement from the London stage and removal to Spain where his singing was meant to keep the debilitating melancholy of the king of that country, Philip V, at bay.  Burney reports that Farinelli “told me, that for the first ten years of his residence at the court of Spain … he sung every night to [the] monarch the same four airs, of which two were composed by Hasse, Pallido il sole, and Per questo dolce Amplesso.  I forget the others, but one was a minuet which he used to vary at his pleasure.” These relentless repetitions netted the singer a huge Spanish life-long pension of 2,000 pounds sterling per year along with the highest honors of Spanish knighthood.

Perhaps not as irresistible, as Burney would put it, but nonetheless robust in its own right, is the celebrity of three-time Tony Award Winner and recipient of a British knighthood last year Mark Rylance. In Farinelli and the King, which opened at the Belsaco Thetre in New York in December and runs till March, Rylance plays the mad and moody Spanish monarch with a virtuosic lightness shot through with pathos that carry the weak script of the first-time playwright, his wife, Claire van Kampen.

Theater, especially opera, was often a family affair in the eighteenth century:  Farinelli himself bolstered the career of his brother, the composer Riccardo Broschi. Riccardo was seven years Farinelli’s senior, and certainly benefitted from his brother’s success; it is often assumed that Riccardo made the decision to bring his younger brother to the surgeon.  Likewise, one of the most famous couples of the eighteenth-century was the above-mentioned Johann Adolph Hasse, who married the leading female soprano of the first-half of the century, Faustina Bordoni, for a time, one of Handel’s leading ladies.

Along with Farinelli’s teacher Porpora, Hasse was the famed singer’s favorite composer.  Yet this is Broadway, and not a note of Hasse is heard in Farinelli and the King, the assumption being that Handel’s hits put butts in the seats: as the marquees of the district confirm, it is the warhorses that fill the coffers.  Handel tried to win Farinelli for his London opera company, but never succeeded; Farinelli knew Handel’s music and Burney reports that in London one of the English princesses made him sing a Handel aria at sight. Farinelli was not a Handelian, but is recast as one in Kampen’s play. It’s a pity that the two arias Farinelli actually sang thousands of times for the King don’t get a hearing. The elegant and energetic music of Hasse will have to wait for another day and a better play to make its Broadway debut.

Kampen has a solid resumé as theater composer, and, aside from writing the play, she also arranged the music for Farinelli and the King, which was performed by a quartet of baroque strings and directed from a fittingly Italian harpsichord by the lively and imaginative Jonathan Byers. Clad in period dress, the ensemble was arrayed on a balcony at the back of the stage. This may be the first time that eighteenth-century-style instruments and compelling, historically-informed musical performance has been heard—crucially, without microphones— in a Broadway theater.

Kampen’s play premiered in London in 2015 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.  The Wanamaker is a reconstruction of a Jacobean theater, and performances in the intimate space are lighted by beeswax candles. This last feature is one of the main marvels of the New York production at the Belasco Theatre on 44th Street. Firetrap is often the first word that comes to my mind when being herded into early twentieth-century Broadway theaters like the Belasco. Seeing the flicker and feint of real flames in large candelabras high above and in the footlights below produces not only a unique and affecting ambience, but also a frisson of fear akin to the perils of live performance itself. No fire extinguisher-wielding ushers were to be seen, but they must have been ready in the wings.

Aside from much try-hard humor that gets it laughs thanks to Rylance’s marvelously quizzical and often disbelieving delivery, Kampen doesn’t add anything new to the exaggerated, but beautiful 1994 biopic of the singer, Farinelli. Several eighteenth-century writers on music remark on how convincing performance could elevate mediocre works: so it is with Rylance’s rescue of his wife’s play.

Kampen treats the brutality enacted on Farinelli in schoolboy fashion: at their first meeting, the King asks the singer with crude bluntness how old he was when his balls were cut off.  On learning that the operation came at age ten (two years earlier than the historical record suggests), Philip responds in tones, both elegiac and arch: “too late, and too early.” Set off ponderously by an invisible fermata, these words become the play’s lynchpin line, returning at the close of two hours in pursuit of an illusive profundity.

Kampen grasps at many themes—the harmony of the spheres; natural music (even when sung by a man whose nature has been taken from him) as a refuge from civilization and its wars and worries; song as therapy; the seductions of the voice—but leaves them undeveloped.  These dead-ends parallel the production’s time-saving habit of dispensing with the crucial second sections of arias: the habitual return to the opening is what gave a singer of Farinelli’s skill the opportunity to show his refinement and skill in ornamenting the original material. Thus the circling back that defined Farinelli’s operatic singing continually turns instead down a cul-de-sac.

As Kampen rightly says in the program book, the castrato voice is extinct (though vicious rumors circulated about another famous male treble and celebrity of Farinellian scope, Michael Jackson). In the film soundtrack, a male countertenor and female soprano were digitally joined. The solution hit upon in Farinelli and the King is to have a countertenor appear for the arias, the actor charged with spoken lines (Sam Crane) listening and looking from close by as his operatic double breaks into song.

With two performances a day, these musical duties alternate between James Hall (at the matinees) and the more renowned Iestyn Davies (evenings).  It was Hall whom I heard, and he is a fine, often riveting singer, but he lacks the presence and pull that  Farinelli must have had. One can’t expect such powers from a modern singer, even one of Hall’s gifts and sensibilities. Heard from my seat on the on-stage balcony, just to the sides of the musicians, Hall was often covered by the accompaniment. This was a matter of placement, to be sure, but Farinelli would never have lost such a contest, just as he won his duel with the Roman trumpeter.

Crane’s speaking Farinelli is taut with earnest emotion—not quite the graciously poised man described by Burney. Crane’s voice is, of course, modern, that is lower than Farinelli’s: ironically, it is in the spoken lines that the character might have been more disquieting and evocative had a woman inhabited the title speaking role, just as on the modern stage female sopranos often take the “male” leads of baroque operas. In Kampen’s play a woman would then have listened to a man on stage, each singing and speaking in the “wrong” register—a rich gender mix worthy of Times Square and environs, and a turn that could have brought into relief themes of gender, biology, surgical intervention, the cost of celebrity, and the healthful potential of music. These are not new concerns. While Farinelli and the King has its delights, it turns a deaf ear to much that eighteenth-century song and singers could tell us about ourselves.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com