By Ian Rigg
“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
Lyric Opera’s lavish production of The Light in the Piazza, about a mother and daughter enjoying a trip to Italy where not everything is as it seems, dares audiences to ask: can a foregone conclusion become a fairytale? Are the cracks in our lives perhaps on purpose?
The lush orchestrations seem to echo that divine intervention: they make the heart swell and the head swoon, brought vividly to life by the sublime Lyric Opera Orchestra under the baton of Kimberly Grigsby.
Director Daniel Evans wisely keeps things dreamlike, keeping his performers in an evocative but heightened old Hollywood style, with a well-utilized chorus to conjure up fantastic images of Florentine life. Costumer Brigitte Reiffenstuel masterfully brings it to life further with bright jewel tone renditions of period costumes.
Robert Jones’ set forms beautiful ruins that symbolize its central relationship perfectly. Expertly lit by Mark Henderson, everything onstage is gorgeous and speaks to deep history, but it’s all askew, half-finished. For Clara, it speaks to the life never lived, never fully developed. For her mother, it symbolizes a perfect life broken, diminishing more and more every day. Even if your path is defined by your past, why wouldn’t you enjoy it to the fullest?
It’s interesting then, that the material itself also feels half-finished. The book is not the best around — Margaret’s monologues, while effective enough, aren’t the throughline the show needs and feel more like expository tonal breaks — but the performers more than make do, even if the treatment of its subject matter doesn’t hold water with 2019 standards (it feels like it was written in 1953 when the show is set). And then one of those undeniable melodies by Adam Guettel hits and you remember why people love this show despite its narrative shortcomings. A full plot synopsis and production history may be read here.
Golden-voiced Solea Pfeiffer brings a soaring lilt and a keen ambiguity to the role of Clara: is she actually doomed to be bubbly and childlike forever, or is that just her joyful and openminded demeanor and she’s been held back and sheltered? And then she breaks down and makes you wonder all over again.
Alex Jennings brings a workmanlike sprezzatura to the mercurial Naccarelli patriarch, Eric Sciotto is all Florentine charm as Giuseppe, Suzanne Kantorski is pure fire as Franca, and Marie McLaughlin nails her act two opener.
Renée Fleming as Clara’s mother, Margaret Johnson, is every bit the master soprano, earning every rave she ever received. She possesses all the bountiful technique that years of experience forges, and a life-affirming quality that can’t be taught.
But it may really be rising young star Rob Houchen, as young romantic Fabrizio who sets the flame, that shines brightest. Audiences search far and wide for a voice like his, and sure enough he charms as the catalyst that drives the Johnsons from their pre-ordained fates.
The performances in Lyric Opera’s splendiferous production reminds us that love is a light that never goes out: it just has to find the right cracks to shine through.
The Light in the Piazza plays in a limited engagement now through December 29, at Lyric Opera House at 20 N. Wacker Drive. For more information and tickets, visit here.