Claire van Kampen

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Farinelli and The King

van Kampen, Claire

Last Updated: Mar-21-2018
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Theater

Genre: Theater


Anyone walking through a theater district over the past several decades and even centuries ago would likely run into a mad king—Lear, Richard III, George III, Scar. As of 2015, there’s a new mad king to be found in theater districts—King Philippe of Spain in Farinelli and the King.  

The play opens with King Philippe of Spain sitting up in his bed talking to a goldfish swimming around in its bowl trying to avoid the hook at the end of the King’s little fishing pole: 

I was touched by the confidence with which you speak to me of your affairs; the cordiality of your offer to redress mine; the tender anxiety for my health—but I should tell you in the strictest confidence you understand…shh…here the body cares very little for the affairs of the mind. (Act 1, Scene 1)   

As the King’s mental illness progresses from this point and becomes a concern of his court, his wife, Queen Isabella is sent away so that the King cannot physically harm her as he had before. But, what’s to be done for him? It’s the year 1737. While attending an opera in London, the Queen thinks she may have discovered just what the King needs—the renowned castrato Farinelli: 

Then…he began. A long note, held; I must think it was beyond a minute. A swooping, soaring sound and the notes were above the tree-tops, bird-like, unimaginable. When the aria finished just now I couldn’t help my tears; I was unable to move; I just stared at the stage, where he had been…I couldn’t believe what I had seen and heard…I felt something had profoundly changed within me. …and then, —I knew…That I must hope somehow to bring Farinelli to Spain with me. (Act 1, Scene 3)    

The Queen finds a way to bring Farinelli back to Spain, and Farinelli begins to sooth the mad King with his voice from the heavens. The King becomes calmer yet when he moves with the Queen and Farinelli to a house in the forest, where he cuts a hole in the trees so he can hear the “hidden notes” of the spheres above. The King tells Farinelli, “you must sing to me; in the long hours of dark, when my mind is screaming in the silence, then that is when I need you to sing to me.” (Act 2, Scene 5)  

The Queen was sure Farinelli’s singing was effective:

And they say it was Farinelli that helped to restore the health of the King of Spain—just by hearing this wonderful singing voice the King rose out of his depression and wanted to live again! It was the only thing the King could bear in the end. The sound of Farinelli’s voice. (Act 2, Scene 5)  

In Farinelli’s own and immodest assessment: “He is decidedly better because of me, and in his lonely life I have become a song he now depends on.” (Act 2, Scene 1) And, in making his clinical assessment, the King’s doctor was “of the opinion that the King’s illness has turned." (Act 1, Scene 4)  

The utopian existence comes to an end when the King is called back to Madrid to take on an impending English invasion. He would not be seen again.  

This fanciful tale is not so fanciful; it’s drawn from the historical King Philippe of Spain. His grandfather, King Louis XIV of France placed him there, and there he reigned for almost 50 years. Indeed he was mad, and indeed his wife the Queen brought the renowned castrato Farinelli back to Spain where he served the King for 9 years and then the son who succeeded him until this son’s death. From there Farinelli retired to the Italian countryside instead of returning to the public stages in Europe.  

The current NY production  could not replicate Farinelli’s voice exactly now that castrati are not to be found anymore; however, a countertenor was able to produce a swooping and soaring sound. Though Farinelli’s voice could not be replicated perfectly, the staging of the play was replicated as the audience of the day would have seen it in the mid 1700s. The lighting was supplied by candlelight from chandeliers and sconces that were part of the sets. The musicians supporting Farinelli’s performances were also situated on the stage with him. And, as the theaters were arranged then, seats for the audience were available on both sides of the stage. 

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