Renée Fleming is splendid and charming in ‘The Light in the Piazza’

Rob Houchen as Fabrizio and Solea Pfeiffer as Clara in “The Light in the Piazza.” (Photo by Liz Lauren)

What: “The Light in the Piazza”
Where: Lyric Opera,
20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Dec. 29
Tickets: lightinthepiazzathemusical.com

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Stephen Sondheim once said, “The only thing I have to say about the difference between opera and musical theater is that opera is musical theater that takes place in an opera house in front of an opera audience.” Explaining that opera audiences have different expectations, Sondheim said this leads to a different approach and different singers.

When one of the singers cast is Renée Fleming, that may not actually make the musical theater piece an opera in the eyes of the audience, but it will result in an audience with a lot of opera fans.

That is what has happened with a 2003 work by Adam Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rodgers, one half of the legendary duo Rodgers and Hammerstein. The Tony-award winning “The Light in the Piazza” is now in a holiday run through the end of the year at the Lyric Opera House. The production opened this summer in London at the Royal Festival Hall, and then ran at the Los Angeles Opera. After Chicago, it travels to Sydney.

“Piazza,” based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, is the story of Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara. While on a trip to Florence, a chance meeting between Clara and Fabrizio, a young Italian man, leads to love. But Clara has a tragic secret and to protect her, Margaret does all she can to break up the young couple. When she comes to the realization that Clara’s happiness and entire future are at stake, and that she needs support more than protection, Margaret makes a decision that changes both Clara’s life and her own.

This is a feel-good story worthy of the holiday season, stuffed to the rafters with talent. Guettel’s music isn’t operatic, but it is beautifully and lushly composed and not reliant on blaring pop tunes to make its point. In fact, there are no memorable songs in the score. Yet the music is complex and always serves the story. It is scored for 30 musicians (strings plus oboe, clarinet, bassoon, percussion, harp, piano, and guitar, with some musicians doubling). It is conducted with both vim and nuance by  Kimberly Grigsby, the conductor of the 2005 production on Broadway.

American soprano Renée Fleming, one of the world’s most popular opera singers, is Margaret. She is utterly splendid in the lead role, doing just about everything with perfection. Only her attempts at a Southern accent fail, and as she doesn’t seem to be trying all that hard, it isn’t much of a distraction.

The music for Margaret often sits much lower than Fleming’s operatic roles, making them easy for Fleming (now 60 years old) to sing with both force and clarity. And she is a natural with the speaking parts, her operatic training giving her the ability to act with ease. She’s a generous performer, knowing how to set up laughs for other characters and has expert timing. Fleming’s fans will thoroughly enjoy her outing in this work.

Margaret’s counterpart, Signor Naccarelli (Fabrizio’s father), is played by Alex Jennings. This British actor will be known to American audiences because he has famously portrayed the uncle of the two most recent Queens of England on recent popular television programs: King Leopold on “Victoria” and the Duke of Windsor on “The Crown.” Unaware of Clara’s disabilities, Naccarelli is happy that his son has found love and he’s not unimpressed by the young woman’s mother, making for a few laughs.

Rob Houchen’s Fabrizio is fabulous. His boyish enthusiasm is infectious, and his singing voice is pleasing and plangent. His is not an operatic voice, but a very big and pleasing one

Solea Pfeiffer will be the biggest disappointment for an operatic audience. Her voice is rather thin and her pitch at times uncertain. But she’s lovely and captures the innocence of Clara, even though she struggles to portray Clara’s imperfections. Pfeiffer makes us want Clara’s happiness and makes us want to trust love.

All of the supporting characters are great singers as well. Marie McLaughlin as Fabrizio’s mother is excellent, and you can hear her operatic background as she performs with conviction and commitment. Suzanne Kantorski, another opera singer, gives a strong performance as Fabrizio’s sister-in-law, a saucy and sexually frustrated young woman.

The production uses a unit set that doubles as a piazza for the outdoor scenes and individual rooms for the indoor scenes. This is often a little clumsy, but it works well enough. The outdoor set beautifully reproduces small details of 1950s Italy, in picture postcard fashion. Hanging high above the stage is a huge circular element that resembles an enormous compact disc, blue with clouds painted on it. It serves as either the sky or the gorgeous ceilings of some of Italy’s most beautiful architecture. The costumes are glorious, evoking a simple yet romantic mindset.

The weakest part of “The Light in the Piazza” is the awkward way that Clara’s secret is revealed (Margaret simply tells the audience) and her sudden volte-face concerning the wedding of Clara and Fabrizio. But these are easy enough to overlook, given the romantic and sentimental trappings.

It is also a pity that the entire performance is amplified. Fleming hardly requires this, and the other opera singers on stage must surely not need it either. The amplification results in sound far muddier than one would like. Worse, at times the balance was terrible, with the orchestra overwhelming the singers. Since there are no supertitles, the text is sometimes lost.

This is not a Lyric Opera production, but one mounted by Scenario Two and Karl Sydow. On the strength of this production alone, I’d aver that this enterprise has a lot to bring to musical theater.

Guettel’s sumptuous music, which propels the story forward at every point, wins the day. It is contemporary and accessible, thoughtful as well as joyful. Combined with a life-affirming story, “The Light in the Piazza” is a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays.