Los Angeles Opera 2019-20 Review: The Light in the Piazza

Opera Or Not, Renée Fleming & Company Deliver An Experience To Remember

By Gordon Williams

(Photo credit: Craig T. Mathew)

Should opera companies do musicals? I guess the question is not yet settled and it came up in connection with Los Angeles Opera’s production of the Tony Award-winning “The Light in the Piazza,” which opened at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019 and ran through Oct. 20.

On both a company blog-site and in the pre-performance discussion between Gail Eichenthal and the company’s Resident Conductor Grant Gershon on the opening night, the question was canvassed, and the blog-site gave quite an impressive summary of the company’s previous engagements with musical theater.

Personally, I think the answer is “yes”. Musicals are a legitimate avenue for opera companies to explore. Not having read Elizabeth Spencer’s original novella of “The Light in the Piazza” nor seen the 1962 film adaptation, it is hard to recall Saturday night’s story separately from Adam Guettel’s score. The impression that remains is largely musical and vocal – and lush musicality, at that.

The pervasive musicality of “The Light in the Piazza” strikes strongest when you realize how much of the economical dialogue was underscored; in this case that was clearer still thanks to the sensitive playing of the orchestra under the direction of conductor Kimberly Grigsby. Adam Guettel’s music is also marvelously orchestrated with attention quite often drawn to the spiky detail provided by Alan Steinberger’s piano. The harp runs and string tremolos opening out into a broad melody in the overture immediately set the mood of so many 1960s movie romances.

Slight But Special Story

You could say that the story is slight. Two Americans, Margaret Johnson, played by Renée Fleming, and her daughter Clara, played by Dove Cameron, are tourists in Italy. Dad Roy, a hard-headed businessman played by Malcolm Sinclair, has not come with them, even though the trip is in some ways a nostalgic reenactment of his and Margaret’s trip to Italy as newly-weds after the war. In Roy’s two appearances, director Daniel Evans has placed him above the stage, a distant but stifling presence.

Clara is developmentally challenged and when she falls in love with Fabrizio, an Italian, Margaret must decide whether to facilitate the marriage, questioning her own motives in always deciding what’s best for Clara whose fate after her parents’ eventual deaths naturally weighs on Margaret’s mind.

Playwright Craig Lucas tells this story simply and effectively. That simplicity was further underlined by Robert Jones’s set: a trompe l’oeil on a suspended disc for the sky, two intersecting curves textured like Florentine buildings, and a Roman statue. The statue was about the only thing that changes position,though tables and chairs get moved around, but it was important to note how effectively a change in Mark Henderson’s lighting could place audience members in another part of the city at a different time of day.

One of the more interesting decisions taken in this work was to have the Italians speak Italian without giving the audience the benefit of surtitles. Unless members  of the audience spoke Italian, they, like Margaret and Clara, were “innocents abroad.” It’s a mark of how effectively Lucas tells his story that the viewer could always tell what was going on even when the language was not one’s own.

“The Light in the Piazza” has an effective structure that dramatizes the opera/musical blend with two consecutive numbers in the middle – “Dividing Day,” in which Margaret with the operatic voice, expresses regret at the staleness of her marriage; and “Hysteria,” written for the musical theater voice, where we get a glimpse of Clara’s insecure grasp of the world as she gets lost in the unfamiliar city. In this context, operatic and musical styles simply came across as options in the creators’ palette.

Of course, one has to wonder whether the story would have sustained attention if the music had not been so effective. In this writer’s opinion, a spoken play might have conveyed Clara’s challenges in more convincing detail as panicked vocalise was not quite enough. Moreover, in some ways, understatement and simplicity is what made the work so moving. After all the turmoil over whether a wedding would actually take place, it was touching at the end to see Clara take her place at the “altar” ready for a wedding to commence.

As mother and daughter Renée Fleming and Dove Cameron portrayed a believable bond – the stresses of their relationship (and travel together) quite apparent as was Margaret’s concern for the welfare of her daughter.



A Fantastic Cast

Renée Fleming’s spoken monologues where she reveals the source of Clara’s learning difficulties were as effective as her song. In an interview with Edward Seckerson in the program booklet, Fleming talked of how she benefitted from the show’s subtle amplification but the fullness with which her natural voice rang out on the show’s most important word,“love” on “Love if you can Clara/ Love and be loved,” was greatly appreciated.

Dove Cameron was an engaging Clara, whose voice nicely complemented that of her “mother.”

As Fabrizio’s father, Signor Naccarelli, Brian Stokes Mitchell provided the show with necessary gravitas. In supporting roles, Rob Houchen’s Fabrizio was the most impressive. It was admirable how he smoothly transitioned from lower range to falsetto and expression of absolute despair in “Aiutami,” one of the show’s most effective ensemble numbers.

Celinde Schoenmaker’s Franca was nicely cynical (an oxymoron?) but her embrace with Clara after stirring up Clara’s jealousy was one of the most moving moments.

It was fascinating to get the measure of the opening night audience’s reaction to this show. Was it a traditional opera audience that applauded each stars’ entry? Maybe that isn’t an important question at all, especially when considering just how visceral the audience reactions were throughout the evening. There were very real gasps when Margaret and Signor Naccarelli stole an illicit kiss toward the end and expressions of sympathy when Clara first appeared in her wedding dress.

There is something else “The Light in the Piazza” offered beyond a charming story gracefully told – a warmth and wisdom that we can always be grateful for.


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