It’s been a while, here in the UK, since we’ve had any significant royal patronage for opera. So the idea of an opera singer being summoned to the court and becoming the monarch’s closest confidant – indeed, saving him from life-destroying depression – seems hopelessly far-fetched. But truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s exactly what happened in the case of Philip V of Spain and Farinelli, the most famous castrato of Handel’s era. Claire van Kampen’s play Farinelli and the King doesn’t have to stray too far from historical reality to create a wish-fulfilling dream for any lover of opera.

Mark Rylance (Philippe V) and Iestyn Davies (Farinelli) © Simon Annand
Mark Rylance (Philippe V) and Iestyn Davies (Farinelli)
© Simon Annand

First seen at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in February, Farinelli and the King has now transferred to the considerably larger space of the Duke of York’s Theatre, in the heart of London’s Theatreland and within spitting distance of another home of opera, the Coliseum. The producers have done a more than passable job of recreating the magical interior of the Sam Wanamaker, candles and all, in the Duke of York’s far more conventional space.

The play is pretty much guaranteed to appeal to both the musical and the theatre-going crowds. Musically – and van Kampen is a musician first and a playwright second – there’s the big attraction of a clutch of Handel arias, and if you pick the right night, you get Iestyn Davies singing the role of Farinelli. Davies is one of the world’s very best countertenors at the moment and he seems to sing Handel with as much ease as if he had imbibed it with his mother’s milk, both in the long pure notes and in the death-defying thrills and spills of the coloratura. The theatre set will be attracted by the presence of Mark Rylance as Philip, who gives an acting performance of seemingly impossible virtuosity. Acting the part of a mental patient is a tricky thing, and Rylance succeeded in making us love Philip through all his erratic craziness and appalling mood swings. We’re helped to love him by Melody Grove as Queen Isabella, who gives an assured and sensitive performance which is sufficiently magnetic that we are spending a lot of the play watching Philip through Isabella’s eyes.

© Simon Annand
© Simon Annand

Rather like the bipolar King, van Kampen’s dialogue veers back and forth between high comedy and serious attempts at capturing the magical and ineffable. It’s rather more effective in the comedy, helped by the amusement of distinctly current blue language coming from people dressed in wigs and frock coats. Rather than portraying the King as a depressive, the script makes him decidedly batty, whether engaged in deep philosophical discussions with his goldfish or communing with the trees. Rylance plays it thoroughly dry and deadpan, and is very funny indeed; more fun is added by a serious breakdown in the fourth wall as the audience become the villagers who live near the royal cottage in the forest.

Farinelli is double cast, with actor Sam Crane appearing alongside the singing Farinelli. It works effectively, Crane’s manner could charm the birds off the trees just as much as Davies’ voice, which makes for pleasant watching, although I was unable to silence the small voice inside me doubting strongly that one of the world’s greatest singers would have had anything like the level of humility with which van Kampen portrays him.

Melody Grove (Isabella) and Mark Rylance (Philippe V) © Simon Annand
Melody Grove (Isabella) and Mark Rylance (Philippe V)
© Simon Annand

The attempts at touching the sublime are less successful. The dialogue is (unsurprisingly) very powerful in describing the life-changing properties of the music, and however beautiful Davies’ singing is, it’s very hard for a collection of opera arias, shorn of their context, to live up to that description. It makes Farinelli and the King into a thoroughly enjoyable night out – but don’t take it too seriously.