Theater

Review: The Light in the Piazza at Lyric Opera: Not shining as brightly

Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings in Scenario Twoís production of 'The Light in the Piazza' at Lyric Opera House.
Renee Fleming and Alex Jennings in Scenario Twoís production of 'The Light in the Piazza' at Lyric Opera House.

Four-time Grammy Award winner and Tony Award nominee Renée Fleming in a “limited holiday engagement” of a musical at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago? Those facts alone will spur many an opera fan to immediately buy tickets to The Light in the Piazza and not think twice about it. But do think twice.

While there is much to praise about this Scenario Two production, read on for some additional opening night thoughts to consider.

First, a bit of background on the plot and the show itself. The Light in the Piazza, which won 6 of 11 Tony Awards it was nominated for when it premiered on Broadway in 2005,is a musical by Craig Lucas (book) and Adam Guettel (music and lyrics), Guettel’s original score winning one of the Tonys. The Light in the Piazza ran for over 500 performances.

The musical is based on a 1960 novella by Elizabeth Spencer about two Americans, Margaret Johnson (Fleming) and her 20-something daughter Clara (Solea Pfeiffer), who take a memorable vacation to Italy in the summer of 1953. While in Florence, a breeze catches Clara’s hat, and Clara catches the eye of a handsome 20-year-old Italian, Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen), who was lucky enough to have the wind drop the hat in his hands. Clara and Fabrizio fall in love at first sight, despite Margaret’s attempts to shield her daughter, since Clara has a secret that could pose a major stumbling block to any romantic relationship. (No spoilers from me on that plot point.) Margaret’s husband Roy (Malcolm Sinclair) is not going to be much help to his wife or daughter; through phone calls back to the U.S., we see that he’s distant, and not just in a geographic sense.

Meanwhile, Fabrizio’s father (Alex Jennings), mother (Marie McLaughlin), brother Giuseppe (Eric Sciotto), and sister-in-law Franca (Suzanne Kantorski) gradually warm up to Margaret and Clara and the possibility of a friendship, or more, between Fabrizio and Clara. The question of whether the secret, Margaret’s protectiveness, or other issues will prevent a happy ending is one for the audience to discover.

The positive aspects of this production include Renée Fleming herself. As arguably the most well-known living female opera singer – she even sang the National Anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl! – her voice is beautiful, floating all the way up to the “cheap seats.” And her portrayal of a mother who’s emotionally pulled in several directions is spot-on.

I also thought the chemistry between Pfeiffer and Houchen was palpable. I wanted Clara and Fabrizio’s budding romance to overcome any obstacle.

And Jennings, who you may recall as Edward VIII in the Netflix series “The Crown,” is very good as a charming businessman who is more than willing to turn on that charm if it’ll help his youngest son.

The set from scenic designer Robert Jones is also impressive. As soon as you enter the theater, your jaw will drop at the Florence buildings, the public square (or piazza), and the disc-shaped blue sky surrounded by a black background – with a black “donut hole” in the middle of the sky. As the story proceeds, the set is a kind of metaphor, for there is plenty of darkness surrounding the possibility of a sunny future for Clara.

What prevents me from a glowing recommendation for this Light? A few factors:

The difficulty in hearing the ensemble over the 30-plus musicians in the orchestra, especially in the opening number. The balance between singers and instrumentalists just wasn’t there.

The fact that I often had to strain to hear dialogue or lyrics, particularly from Pfeiffer.

The frequent use of Italian without projected English translations. An Act One song by Fabrizio, “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” was about Clara (the one non-Italian word I heard), but it was only later that I found a web translation of the lyrics. I wish I’d known during the performance that he was singing about his world being empty and “filled with shadow” until he met Clara, who was his “light in the piazza.” Translations are projected for Lyric operas; they would have greatly helped here.

In summary, I had hoped this production would be a Delight in the Piazza, but even with Renée Fleming, this Light didn’t shine as brightly as I’d expected.

• Paul Lockwood is an enthusiastic singer, frequent local theater actor, Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, occasional theater reviewer, and past president of TownSquare Players. Recent shows include Morning’s at Seven, 42nd Street, Once Upon a Mattress, and On Golden Pond.

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