Review | Washington National Opera’s ‘Songbird’ is an absolute hoot

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Pardonnez mon lateness — that’s “Franglais” for “My sincere apologies for being so tardy to the party that is Washington National Opera’s ‘Songbird.’” (If they can take liberties, so can I.)

Just one performance remains (on March 23) of this Big Easy-based reimagining of Jacques Offenbach’s 1868 comedy “La Périchole” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, and those with an operatic sweet tooth would be well served to grab tickets.

I should note my surprise over this. On paper, “Songbird” is the kind of multidimensional time-traveling adaptation that makes my head explode: an opera set in 18th-century Peru, written by a 19th-century French composer, subsequently moved to early-20th-century New Orleans by way of a 21st-century opera company.

Elsewhere in apparent hazards, “Songbird” is part of a belated wave of works originally conceived during the darkest days of the pandemic but just now arriving onstage. Original co-director and WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello conceived the adaptation in 2020 as an open-air offering for the 2021 Glimmerglass Festival (which she directed until 2022). Years later, we’ve got more one-minute commissions, doomed Zoom relics and mini-operas about “isolation” than we know what to do with.

But “Songbird” shreds all of its potential red flags into an explosion of ribbons and fringe. Onstage in all of its Mardi Gras-infused festoonery, “Songbird” is nothing short of a satisfying hoot (albeit with a few errant feathers).

The choice of Offenbach’s loony comedy about a pair of starving Peruvian artists and their manipulation by a powerful philandering viceroy was the recommendation of mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard — who sings the title role with disarming comedic chops to rival her formidable pipes.

The decision to up and move the opéra bouffe to a bawdy speakeasy in Prohibition-era New Orleans emerged from conversations between Zambello and conductor James Lowe, who led his onstage ensemble of 11 players toward the back of its “Cafe des Muses.”

And the hybridization of the opera’s native French to a NOLA-inspired gumbo of French and English (that’s heavy on the ham) was the work of librettist and Louisiana native Kelley Rourke, who has dual knacks for penning singable English and folding in groan-worthy dad jokes. Director Eric Sean Fogel’s expansion of the more sparsely appointed original benefits from an evocative set by James F. Rotondo III, and costumes from Marsha LeBoeuf (also a Louisiana native) and Timm Burrow — who capably ensure that this fantasized New Orleans never gets mistaken for Party City.

Lowe’s jazzified re-orchestrations of Offenbach’s music lean heavily into classic New Orleans jazz — there’s lots of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong bubbling away in the reference pot.

But he also smartly retains Offenbach’s wry tenderness, as in “O mon cher amant, je te jure,” Songbird’s sorry/not sorry letter to current co-performer and future lover Piquillo (sung by Canadian actor and singer Ramin Karimloo). Lowe also preserves the composer’s wit and vivacity: Leonard delightfully lit up her take on “Ah! Que les hommes sont bêtes!,” Songbird’s lament over the dependable idiocy of men.

Likewise, Lowe’s band sounded convincingly shaggy and unbuttoned, lending the impression of clambering behind the show’s procession like a second line. But Lowe had them locked in tight, with little dramatic flourishes catching light like rhinestones. Lee Rogers was sensational on trombone, as was Tim White on trumpet. Clarinetist David Jones often lit up his instrument like a match — and took his own memorable comic turn leaning out from the arches.

The entire percussion section was on point, with lively xylophones scampering over a trap kit, adding lots of unexpected timbral pop. Jim Roberts on banjo and Andrew Hitz on sousaphone (a later instrumental addition to the score) were also highlights of the evening. And a featured turn from Chicago-based pianist Jo Ann Daugherty was a lovely addition to the mix.

Most of my quibbles were easily overwhelmed by the show’s confetti of small pleasures.

The use of microphones — another vestige of its past life on the lawn at Glimmerglass — resulted in an unavoidable and uniform flattening of the singers’ midranges. Leonard has enough power onstage to overcome such interference, but Karimloo, whose voice flashes a harsher edge more suited to musical theater, struggled to match the generosity and inviting warmth of her tone. (Indeed, the difference between their voices made the suggestion of their chemistry a matter of suspended disbelief.)

The supporting cast was also a bit uneven (partially due to the sound in the hall). I enjoyed tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes in his brief appearances as a man of the cloth, and baritone Justin Burgess was good for a laugh as the “Guide” who inexplicably bursts through the floor of Piquillo’s jail cell. Soprano Teresa Perrotta was my favorite of the three “muses,” an arresting presence onstage with a voice to match. Edward Nelson turned his rich baritone to entertainingly overplaying the viceroy turned mayor Don Andrès, pushing his arrogance to a point that once or twice successfully inspired a whit of pity.

Baritone Jonathan Patton’s speakeasy proprietor Don Pedro, though strongly sung, felt completely out of place in his own bar. His joke-cracking sidekick Panatellas was laid on way too thick by Sahel Salam, a talented tenor I’ve enjoyed elsewhere but who repeatedly frightened me with his fake hyena laugh.

But most anything can be forgiven if the party’s good enough, and “Songbird” is a well-thrown bash. As the ensemble piece in the first act disclaims, this is a place of “shameless ostentation,” specializing in “any indulgence you can choose.” If you can get through the door, it’s worth a try — even if you’re fashionably late.

“Songbird” runs at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through March 23, www.kennedy-center.org.

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