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Friday, August 13, 2021

With a Songbird in My Heart

OFFENBACH’S “LA PÉRICHOLE” offers a terrific mezzo-soprano role, if you don’t mind appearing drunk and morally dubious, and Isabel Leonard shines as the title character in the pared-down version presented as part of the Glimmerglass Festival’s on-the-lawn season this summer.

William Burden and Isabel Leonard
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Reworked here into a much shorter piece, it’s moved from Peru to an equally exotic setting: New Orleans. But this is operetta, and this is from the composer who practically created the genre that starred Gilbert & Sullivan and birthed an American musical comedy cousin. So what’s most important is to have fun, and take nothing too seriously.

There’s trouble from the start (there has to be), with a penniless performing couple realizing that they’re probably not going to earn enough to eat on this particular day – even though their opening duet is marvelous. But who ever recognizes such talent in a seedy bar, even one with the improbable moniker “The Muses.”

Tenor William Burden is Piquillo, the other half of the mendicant team. Both he and Leonard are Festival Artists in Residence this summer, and also show their versatility in the revue “To the World,” being performed in repertory.

Their antagonist is Don Andrès, the mayor, who has an operetta-necessary taste for the ladies and wishes to add Songbird, as Leonard’s character is dubbed, to his harem. Trouble is, she has to be married (to someone else) for his ploy to deceive whomever it’s supposed to fool. Baritone Michael Pandolfo, a Glimmerglass Young Artist, is perfect in the part. Unctuous, self-absorbed, tyrannical – everything a good bad guy should be, with the addition of nice comic timing, a robust voice, and even some tap-dancing to accompany his flights of scat-singing.

This being New Orleans on Mardi Gras, the score has been arranged to put Offenbach’s melodies into a lively Dixieland setting, with trombone smears, clarinet embellishments, and banjo chords, the arrangements courtesy conductor James Lowe. Although it’s been fairly easy to adjust to this season’s offstage orchestra (they’re in the theater, piped onto the lawn), this is one case where I would have loved to see some instrumentalists mingling with the singers.

Michael Mayes and William Burden
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Not only are there great arias for Leonard, there’s also an impressive variety. She confesses her love for Piquillo in “O mon cher amant,” as she writes to explain why she’s taking the mayor up on his offer (what she really wants out of it is a decent meal). And, as any bride-to-be knows, the best way to prepare for the ceremony is with strong drink, so she allows Don Andrès to ply her with champagne, enough to propel her into “Ah! quel dîner!,” the “tipsy aria,” in which hiccups are helpfully written into the score – and articulated, by Leonard, quite convincingly (and without the too-typical overplaying), probably making the entire audience all the more thirsty on such a hot day.

There’s even a number reminiscent of Offenbach’s more famous “Can-Can,” as the villagers celebrate the wedding with “Ah! le beau mariage.”

Abetting the mayor’s nasty plans are Panatellas and Don Pedro, sung, respectively, by Young Artists Kameron Lopreore and Peter Morgan. Fine performers with excellent voices, who moved well to the somewhat lackluster choreography – but had to suffer with the mediocre jokes they were given. The libretto, a hybrid of French and English, sported the tang of amateurishness that shows when imperfect rhymes hit the ears and the scansion of English translations turns awkward.

The plot is less a matter of mistaken identity than of delayed recognition, and when Piquillo realizes that he’s married to the woman he wanted to marry, he gets angry and denounces her. So the mayor, now costumed as Rex, king of his Mardi Gras Krewe, has the man thrown into a prison cell, cleverly erected on stage. His cell is invaded by an old prisoner, here named the Guide, allowing baritone Michael Mayes to practically steal the show in his brief scene – bringing to it the same energy that made him so despicable in “Il Trovatore” and so impressively versatile in “To the World.”

By the end of it, the couple reaches enough of an understanding that even Don Andrès turns benevolent to their cause. A second marriage ceremony is performed, inspiring another full-cast song and dance number, and we leave under the illusion that love conquers all. If only real life ended as smoothly as an operetta!

Music by Jacques Offenbach; original libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy
New version by Eric Sean Fogel, James Lowe, and Kelley Rourke
Arranged and conducted by James Lowe
Directed by Francesca Zambello and Eric Sean Fogel
Glimmerglass Festival, Aug. 10

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