“Mother, what happened here?” The innocent question that opens The Light in the Piazza has a loaded answer. Clara Johnson (Solea Pfeiffer) and her mother Margaret (Renée Fleming) step into a sunny square on their first day of vacation in Florence. While Margaret reads from a guidebook and recounts stories from her own honeymoon visit, Clara creates her own history.
It’s the summer of 1953, and the pair are enjoying a mother-daughter trip away from their North Carolina home. The distinct thrill of travel ignites as the square wakes up around them. There’s the exuberance of being in a new place, the confusion of finding your bearings, and the comfort in the familiar that one finds even far from home.
A chance meeting with the handsome local Fabrizio Naccarelli (Rob Houchen) changes the pair’s plans. It’s amore for Clara and Fabrizio, but a secret comes to light that threatens their newfound love.
The Light in the Piazza is based on a 1960 novel by Elizabeth Spencer, and it was partly developed at the Goodman Theatre in 2004. The Lyric Opera stage is a fitting home for the Tony Award-winning musical by playwright Craig Lucas and composer Adam Guettel, directed by Daniel Evans. The vocals straddle musical theater and opera with the force of the Lyric’s orchestra, conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, behind them. The dazzling score conjures up the levity of romantic melodies as well as the underlying emotional weight.
Fleming’s Grammy-winning soprano soars as high as the slice of heaven hanging above the stage, resembling Italy’s famed frescoed ceilings. Joining her in the role of astute parent is Alex Jennings (of Netflix’s The Crown) who plays Fabrizio’s gracious father, Signor Naccarelli.
While the parents have “seen it before,” as Margaret quips, the younger generation embraces the brazen naiveté of first love. Pfeiffer plays Clara with lightness and great sensitivity and a soprano to match. Houchen’s Fabrizio is heartbreakingly earnest. Fabrizio’s brother Giuseppe (Eric Sciotto) and his wife Franca (Suzanne Kantorski) exhibit a different kind of relationship with scene-stealing bravado that’s no stranger to any Italian opera.
Romantic as it is, there are some real stakes in The Light in the Piazza. The show examines the changes and disappointments a union endures over time, including the emotionally empty state of Margaret’s marriage. The parental conflict between wanting to protect your child and set them free brought some audience members to tears.
The Light in the Piazza brings the allure of Italy to life with elegant period costumes (by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) and a set recreating Florence’s sun-soaked streets (by Robert Jones). Mark Henderson’s lighting of the titular square shifts with the characters’ feelings and experiences. A beam illuminating a statue’s sculpted marble posterior brings Clara to remark, “These are very popular in Italy. It’s the land of naked marble boys.”
Although we’re far from summer in Italy, the show’s theme is perfectly fit for reuniting with loved ones during the holiday season—seeing someone as they truly are and choosing them anyway.
The Light in the Piazza runs at the Lyric Opera House (20 N. Wacker Drive) in a limited holiday engagement through Sunday, December 29. Tickets start at $35 and are on sale now at www.lightinthepiazzathemusical.com.