By Maureen Lee Lenker
October 14, 2019 at 04:41 PM EDT
Courtesy of LA Opera

The Light in the Piazza occupies a strange space somewhere in between musical theatre and opera, with its sweeping, operatic score paired with a more traditionally theatrical mode of storytelling. The production, currently playing at L.A. Opera’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion by way of London’s West End, treads this careful balance, casting renowned opera star Renée Fleming and Disney Channel starlet Dove Cameron as the mother and daughter team at the heart of the drama.

Fleming is Margaret Johnson, a Southern housewife touring Italy with her twenty-something daughter Clara (Cameron), who possesses a potentially damaging secret – when she was 12, she was kicked in the head by a pony and her emotional and mental growth was permanently stunted. In short, Clara is easily confused and often responds to situations as a child, not a grown woman, might.

When Clara meets a dashing Italian man, Fabrizio (a winningly innocent Rob Houchen), the two fall head-over-heels in love – but Margaret fears her daughter’s disability and the wounds of her own dissolving marriage could destroy everything.

The musical, which won six Tony Awards when it debuted on Broadway in 2005, is a sedate affair. With music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, its score is entrancing, but never memorable, with scarcely a chorus or retraceable melody line to be found. Its heavily orchestrated, neo-romantic score lilts through a story that is all heart; the book by Craig Lucas from a 1960 novella is the real prize of the piece. It’s a meditation on life, love, and loss, cast through the lens of a mother desperately trying to protect her daughter while clinging to the guilt of what she perceives as her biggest mistake.

Courtesy of LA Opera

Fleming is perfectly cast as Margaret Johnson, her outsized voice swelling to convey all of her mother’s love and romantic disappointment in contrast to her perfectly coiffed, dainty frame. It should come as no surprise that the legendary opera singer brings a virtuosity to the complex score, pitching her way through the emotional rollercoaster of her character’s journey while effortlessly delivering every note with a clarity that would make glass envious. Her role as narrator and first-person address to the audience plays a bit stilted, but her quieter, emotional moments where she wrestles with her own unhappiness and her impulse to overprotect are breathtaking. As Margaret, Fleming steals joy for herself in the smallest, simplest moments in the most heartbreaking of ways.

In contrast, Dove Cameron is a pastel-coated confection as lovelorn Clara. Her vocals are stellar, perhaps surprising to those who might write off her pipes as the product of Disney auto-tuning. And her approach to storytelling through song paints a lush picture as complex as the Renaissance art they visit in Florence. Yet, Cameron’s take on Clara is too generic ingenue. She nails her sunnier, vibrant moments of delight, surprise, and desire – but when it comes to Clara’s moments of confusion or lashing out, she’s not believable. Clara’s story, of finding love and hope, in spite of the fate she’s been dealt, is beautiful – and Cameron is a stunning vessel to convey it. But she grants Clara too much poise and maturity and never manages to shatter that image to land the emotional punch the role requires.

Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging/LA Opera

Fleming and Cameron are backed up by a stellar supporting cast, including Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell as Fabrizio’s father, Signor Naccarelli. Mitchell’s famous pipes never quite get the platform to shine here as his fans might desire, but he still blends humor and gravitas in the role of the aging, charming lothario. Houchen is fresh-faced (and voiced) as the delightfully earnest Fabrizio, while Celinde Schoenmaker is a complete scene-stealer as Franca, Fabrizio’s sister-in-law. Assisted by stellar costumes from Brigitte Reiffenstuel, Schoenmaker brings the energy of Sofia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida to her supporting role for a fierce, funny turn that makes it impossible to take your eyes off her when she’s on stage. Her firecracker bluster is weighted down by a palpable undercurrent of real hurt.

While the story is not flashy, the design is, with Robert Jones’ set transporting the audience into the cobbled streets and ruins of Florence and Rome. A suspended cupola painted to resemble the sky hangs over the proceedings, evoking both Florence’s Duomo, and the blue skies of Italy. While the raked playing space often seems an unnecessary challenge for the actors, the trappings that surround them are eye-catching and enchanting, making it easy to see why Clara could get swept up in a fairy tale in this setting. Reiffenstuel’s airily romantic 1950s costumes are the cherry on top of this design sundae.

The Light in the Piazza has the capacity to touch you to the quick, with its heartrending tale of love at first sight and the struggles of parents to do right by themselves and their children. Whether it’s something inherent to the subtler storytelling and harmonic disruptions of the score is hard to say – but the production currently playing at the L.A. Opera feels overly staid. Its design and voices are vitally alive, but they can’t break through a sense that everything is wrapped in gauze and repressed, preventing the emotionality of the story from shining its light as brightly as it should. B

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