The sun is always shining in Italy in “The Light in the Piazza” (book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, based on the novel by Elizabeth Spencer). A public square in Firenze is presided over by the backside of a headless, nude male in marble. Above it hovers a stylized patch of sky, as effete and subtly menacing as a fascinator at a royal wedding: a bit of blue sky and clouds hemmed into a golden ring with a dark hole in the middle. A few broken columns complete a décor that implies frustrated sexuality via a refined pseudo-European perspective.
The story is familiar: boy meets girl and parents mildly disapprove, in the context of rich Americans going to Italy. It’s 1953, so they aren’t wearing shorts, but opera audiences accustomed to mellifluousness must prepare for a barrage of bad Italian as Margaret Johnson (Renée Fleming) and her daughter Clara (Solea Pfeiffer) lurch about the frescoes and fountains loudly reading from a guidebook and being generally conspicuous. Clara is sweetly astonished by the amicability of Italians. Margaret is hovering and suspicious. Enter Fabrizio (Rob Houchen), whose sole purpose in life seems to be to fall in love with Clara. She is, after all, a pretty girl.
Half the evening is whiled away in the slow dance of courtship, the true sweat of which is undertaken by Margaret and Fabrizio’s father, called Signor Naccarelli (Alex Jennings), because Signora N. doesn’t speak English, Mr. Johnson stayed home in North Carolina, and Clara and Fabrizio were a done deal from day one. Then the big reveal, delivered in awkward direct address by Margaret to the audience: Clara was kicked in the head by a pony on her twelfth birthday and has failed to develop mentally since that time. But no one seems to think this is a problem except Margaret, since Clara looks and acts just like your basic ingénue and Fabrizio et al are fine with it. I mean, who wouldn’t want a wife with the brain of a preteen in the body of a woman? Yet Fabrizio gets his cake and eats it, too: he accepts Clara despite her “handicap,” so now he’s a hero. Long live the patriarchy.
The young leads are glistening and bright of voice, and the evening overall is melodious and pleasant. But who is this production for, and why are we watching it in 2019? (Irene Hsiao)
Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker, lightinthepiazzathemusical.com, $35-$219. Through December 29.