The Glimmerglass Festival ended its long intermission this summer, returning the music to Cooperstown in a slightly altered form. Rechristened “Glimmerglass on the Grass”, the action has been moved from the company’s Alice Busch Opera Theater to a specially constructed al fresco stage on the campus’ stately, rolling lawn. Audience members sit in socially distanced pods, free to kibitz and picnic in the cool Upstate New York air, and enjoy 90-minute musical presentations sans intermission. This summer’s line-up includes reductions of classic operas, pastiche evenings and quirky adaptations like Songbird, a riff on Offenbach’s La Périchole that’s been transported to Jazz Age New Orleans.

WIlliam Burden (Piquillo) and Isabel Leonard (Songbird)
© Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival

Against the backdrop of Mardi Gras, Isabel Leonard crafts an irresistible portrait of the petit oiseau, a struggling street singer caught between the promise of financial security as the nefarious mayor’s mistress and the pleasure of her true love’s arms. The mezzo-soprano builds complexities into a character who could easily come across as one-dimensional. She summons genuine pathos when composing a “Dear John” letter to her jilted paramour, Piquillo (William Burden), and is appropriately coquettish when interacting with her would-be benefactor Don Andrès (Michael Pandolfo). She injects a toughness into the role that’s welcome – when this Songbird complains of an empty stomach, you truly believe she knows the pangs of hunger and would make a drastic choice to avoid it again. 

James Lowe’s reorchestration of Offenbach often resembles musical theatre more than opera (or even operetta), which suits Leonard’s effortless ability to shift idioms with little evidence of stylistic disconnect. Equally comfortable in English and French, she’s Helen Morgan one moment, before morphing into Edith Piaf, plus a dash of Jennie Tourel. Appealingly costumed (by Christelle Matou) in a flapperish purple halter dress, she excels in executing period-authentic dance routines. (No choreographer is credited; the production is co-directed by Francesca Zambello and Eric Sean Fogel.)

Peter Morgan (Don Pedro) and Michael Pandolfo (Don Andrès)
© Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival

The apparently ageless Burden makes for an ardent young lover, but he also finds the comedy in Songbird’s transactional rejection of his initial marriage proposal. He and Leonard play the sham matrimony concocted by Don Andrès like a pair of old vaudevillians. Vocally, he sends ringing, golden-throated high notes sailing out toward the summer sun with hardly a trace of vibrato. Pandolfo’s light baritone was less distinguished, but he made the most of his villainous role, employing levels of winning overstatement rarely seen outside of panto. The large ensemble cast, culled from the ranks of Glimmerglass’ Young Artists Program, sing and act with considerable charm. Peter Morgan and Kameron Lopreore are exceptionally winning as Don Andrès’ hapless enforcers.

The adaptation assembled by Lowe, Fogel and Kelley Rourke leans heavily on New Orleans touchstones. Be prepared to nod knowingly at the mention of beignets, sazeracs and étoufée. There’s also an overabundance of punny humor and dad jokes assigned to Morgan and Lopreore, who handle them admirably but can’t keep them from tiring quickly. The musical language is on stronger footing, evoking ragtime, zydeco and swing with Frenchman Street flair. Lowe conducts the Glimmerglass Orchestra from within the Alice Busch Opera Theater, and despite the difficulties that entails, he achieves a remarkable syncopation with the performers singing their hearts out several hundred yards away. Amplification is subtle and well balanced, diction crystal clear.

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2021 production of Songbird
© Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival

The whole show itself is little more than a bagatelle, but it captures the festive, parade-like spirit we audiences crave as our Covid hiatus comes to an end. You almost want to rush from your lawn chair and join the revelers for a drink on Peter J. Davison’s wonderfully seedy saloon set. And whenever Leonard takes center stage, this Songbird absolutely soars.