A year ago I’d read that Renée Fleming had signed on to play Margaret Johnson in The Light in the Piazza in London. I may have peed a little. One of our greatest sopranos singing one of the most rapturous scores in the past 20 years?
Sign. Me. Up!
That production, which eventually made its way stateside — first the LA Opera followed by San Francisco and Lyric Opera of Chicago — was a not-to-be-missed event.
Yet, I’d concerns. While Fleming’s voice spins gold, the first and last time I’d seen her live was an overworked production of The Merry Widow at the Lyric. Fleming had some minor book work, and her line deliveries were, well… Let’s just say Siri would have demonstrated more dramatic chops.
Unlike Widow, Piazza is true musical theatre. There are SCENES. Craig Lucas’s masterful book requires a lot.
At any rate, I needn’t have worried. Here, Fleming offers a fully fleshed performance, colored with wry humor, a touch of sadness (her bailiwick), and a great dose of love.
She’s the heart of this show — of which this production offers a lot, despite being saddled with a unit set courtesy of a bus-and-truck Mamma Mia.
I’m not going to fiddle with over-analyzing the merits of the show itself. Some may find the story of a mother (Fleming) marrying off her beautiful and “special” daughter (Solea Pfeiffer) to a bunch of unassuming Italians, well, off putting. I can see that. But it’s of another time (the source material novella by Elizabeth Spencer was published in 1960) when love conquered all – including a very real brain injury that likely needs proper medical care.
I choose to go with it. Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic? Or perhaps I’m easily hypnotized by Guettel’s floating melodies and pulsating piano…
At any rate, let’s dive into what I’m best at: A random list of reactions.
First, can we talk about Rob Houchen as Fabrizio? Lawd. That voice! I’d passeggiata with him all day. Heck, if he offered to marry me after his act one opening aria, I’d also gladly say yes while giddily clapping like a 12 year old.
For Clara, we have the beautiful Pfeiffer — an up-and-comer who recently served as one of two Evitas (don’t ask) in a major New York production last month.
Look. I’m sure she’s a lovely performer. The night I saw her, she had major difficulty projecting at the Lyric. She leans on a technique where she consistently pulls back phrases and words. I suppose it’s to create dynamics, but you only end up hearing the beginning and ends of things. Guettel’s score does not require this ornamentation. I’m surprised no music director corrected this. That said, she delivered nicely In her book scenes, and seemed to tap into Clara’s eagerness and awakening.
This orchestra with the great Kimberly Grigsby leading a FULL string section: it’s positively heart-stopping. I don’t think in my lifetime I’ll ever hear this score this way again.
And then there’s the one-two punch that comprises the final ten minutes.
First, you have the stunning “Love to Me,” which is so tender it physically hurts my eyes as they do this bizarre squishy/leaky thing.
This is followed by “Fable,” which cuts the sweetness with a dash of cold, hard reality. And Renee DELIVERS.
It’s so rare that a show is so tonally satisfying – in both the storytelling and the musical language it deploys.
Piazza bowls me over. Every time.