‘This is what Italy does to you,” growls Renée Fleming as the plot of The Light in the Piazza reaches its most tangled point. And if her character – Margaret Johnson, a 1950s American tourist in Florence losing her daughter Clara to a whirlwind romance – is going to blame her confusion on anything it might as well be that. Italy is in every moment of Adam Guettel’s musical – or at least an idealised Italy, as comfortingly picturesque as the London of a Richard Curtis film.
First staged in 2003, with a book by Craig Lucas, The Light in the Piazza scooped half a dozen Tony awards for its Broadway production in 2005. Elizabeth Spencer’s original story, inspired by her own travels, was published in 1960, the year of La Dolce Vita, though it has more in common with 1953’s Roman Holiday. Daniel Evans’s production, with sets by Robert Jones and gorgeous Dior-style costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, is stylish even while it brings out all the cliches. Three minutes in you think “all this needs is a Vespa” – and, presto pronto, on it rolls.
At heart it’s a feelgood musical about the supremacy of True Love. Yet there are other elements, the most important being the fact that Clara’s radiant innocence is the result of childhood brain damage. Should she be treated as an independent woman? Before we can get too tied up in that question, we’re always back to True Love – and Margaret’s experience of it, or not. This heavyweight role is a good vehicle for Fleming’s star quality now that she has stepped back from the opera stage. The melodies lie a little low for her, but higher up her voice soars, and she offers a masterclass in how to shape a phrase.
Guettel’s ambitious score is barely less demanding on the rest of the cast. As a composer he has the blessing and the burden of being the grandson of Richard Rodgers; he inherited his piano, meaning that some of this was composed at the same instrument as Edelweiss and You’ll Never Walk Alone. The music rarely settles for long enough to be similarly hummable, but that’s not the point: instead, it swirls through bittersweet harmonies as though playing hide-and-seek with the keynote, harp and woodwind to the fore. Conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, it’s lushly played by the Orchestra of Opera North, even if the sound design makes them seem to be playing from an empty hall next door.
Dove Cameron is a convincingly angelic Clara, Rob Houchen a winning Fabrizio, and Alex Jennings enjoys himself playing his silver-fox father. Marie McLaughlin – another opera veteran – is classy as Signora Naccarelli, and Celinde Schoenmaker stands out as fiery Franca. None is Italian, but some of their words are, both sung and spoken. McLaughlin steps out of character to translate one of the ensembles for us, but when Houchen delivers Fabrizio’s big infatuation number we’re supposed to wallow in the language of love. As for the dialogues, it feels odd today to be hearing non-Italian actors speaking in broken English, and to be expected to find it amusingly charming. This feels of a piece with the aura of lazy, hazy nostalgia that clings to the whole musical. There’s a lot of light in this piazza, but not a corresponding amount of shade.
• The Light in the Piazza is at the Royal Festival Hall, London, until 5 July.