Magazine article The New Yorker

High Notes

Magazine article The New Yorker

High Notes

Article excerpt

High Notes

Iestyn Davies, the British countertenor, is spending a season as a New Yorker. Throughout the fall, he appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, in "The Exterminating Angel," a thrilling adaptation by Thomas Ades of the film by Luis Bunuel, about an elite dinner party that becomes an inescapable nightmare. This month, he makes his Broadway debut in "Farinelli and the King," a play by Claire van Kampen, about the relationship, in the eighteenth century, between King Philip V of Spain and Carlo Broschi, the most famous castrato of his day, known as Farinelli. Davies plays the part of Farinelli's singing voice, and hovers onstage behind Sam Crane, the actor who plays the rest of him. "I don't know what it's like for the audience," Davies said the other day. "At first, they are a bit confused--'Hang on, who's this?'--and then very quickly it becomes clear that we're the same person. That's what theatre is about--you suspend your disbelief."

Davies--who is thirty-eight but has the boyish looks of the chorister he once was--spoke in the library of the Hispanic Society of America, at Broadway and 155th Street. "I've never been this far uptown," Davies said. "Not even to the Apollo. I want to go to the Apollo."

The museum is closed for renovations, but it had opened its doors so that Patrick Lenaghan, the curator of prints and photographs, could meet with Davies in order to show him what traces of the music-loving Spanish king--played on Broadway by Mark Rylance, who is married to van Kampen--persist in the unlikely environs of Washington Heights. Philip V, Lenaghan explained, was the first Bourbon monarch of Spain--imported from France as a dashing young man when the previous king, Charles II, died without an heir. "We have a portrait that shows how god-awful ugly Charles was--the result of massive Habsburg inbreeding," Lenaghan said.

He turned the pages of a large leather-bound catalogue of Spain's monarchs, up to and including Philip V, made during his reign to illustrate his claim to the throne. Another book showed the young king on a charger rampant, curls flowing and cape blowing--Davies nodded approvingly--and included an engraving showing his swearing-in at the Church of San Jeronimo el Real, in Madrid, attended by hordes of Castilian nobility. "There's someone wearing glasses," Davies observed, with pleasure. "I always like it when I find the one person with glasses. In York, where I live, there's fourteenth-century stained glass, and in one image a man has glasses."

In the play, Farinelli provides a kind of music therapy for the King, who suffered from severe depression. …

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