It’s a dangerous thing to marry a stranger: the beautiful girl passing through town; the impetuous boy taken with her at first sight. My parents discovered this, to their eternal regret. But that’s another story. The story at hand is The Light in the Piazza—a rental production of Adam Guettel’s rapturous musical adaptation (book by Craig Lucas) of the 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer in a holiday-season run at the Lyric Opera House. Thanks to Guettel’s soaring score, a fine cast, and a deceptively complex plot (not the simple love story you might expect), this production manages to transcend its positioning as a showcase for renowned soprano and Lyric creative consultant, Renée Fleming.
Fleming’s on show, of course, but not merely that. The diva melds almost seamlessly into the starring role of Margaret Johnson, an American on an Italian sojourn with her beautiful but—spoiler alert—developmentally disabled 26-year-old daughter, Clara. While her second-act solos are vocal high points, and will be thrilling to her fans, she’s convincing all the way through as the deeply conflicted mother, haunted by a tragedy and facing a moral dilemma. “I played a tricky game in a foreign country,” she tells the audience early on. Quite so.
There’s some casting against type here: Solea Pfeiffer is not the blonde Barbie we’ve seen as Clara in previous productions. She brings an acute sensitivity and strength to the role that rings true. Similarly, Rob Houchen is a surprise as her love-at-first-sight, Fabrizio (a role played in a 1962 movie version of the novella by George Hamilton); his impassioned tenor quickly proves to be exactly right. Alex Jennings is spot-on as Fabrizio’s stereotypically traditional Italian father, and there’s a standout vocal and dramatic performance by soprano Suzanne Kantorski in the supporting role of Fabrizio’s embittered sister-in-law. Direction, by Daniel Evans, has the ensemble leaning to the broad side, but tolerably. A serviceable uni-set gives us one view of a statue when the action’s in Florence, another when it’s in Rome.
Guettel, who is the grandson of composer Richard Rodgers, writes his own lyrics (though he’s better at the music). In this story, about love without a shared language, they sometimes lapse—appropriately, even brilliantly—into sheer sound: “La la la la.” That made the biggest problem I had in a mid-main-floor center seat—the frequent indecipherability of the lyrics, in spite of amplification—less of an issue than it could have been, though I would have traded the microphones during those moments for supertitles. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to hear Guettel’s beautiful score played by 30 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Kimberly Grigsby. v