The “Opera House” will go nearly 6 months without a staged opera between Roméo et Juliette’s final performance in November and a Turandot scheduled for May. However, Washington National Opera has provided a little something to tide audiences over in the form of Songbird, a freewheeling adaptation of Offenbach’s La Périchole, which premiered Saturday night in the adjacent Eisenhower Theater.

Songbird is the second Glimmerglass import WNO has staged this year, where it was originally developed as a pandemic project in 2021. With the aim of creating something that could be performed outside with limited forces and no intermission, the adaptation remixes Offenbach’s 1868 opera bouffé about a pair of starving artist lovers manipulated by a wealthy official as a zany period musical comedy. A locale update from exotic Lima to jazz age New Orleans is accompanied by new material for the book and lyrics (by Kelley Rourke), and a wholesale translation of the score to fit the instrumentation and style of a Dixieland band (new arrangements by James Lowe).

The musical aspects generally work well, with Offenbach’s tunes happily recast in a jazz idiom and giddy ensemble numbers gaining an extra measure of exuberance, though at times the imposed swing rhythms sit awkwardly in the faster solo arias and make them sound effortful. Lowe, who also conducted, led a crack performance from the onstage band.

The new material for the book and lyrics is less successful. While the original three-act work has been effectively condensed into a fleet 90 minutes with the basic contours and pacing of a more modern comedy, the revised book and translated lyrics are too often bedeviled by clumsy dialogue, cliched turns of phrase, and jokes that fail to land. The resulting work feels a bit unsure of where it is supposed to live–it aspires to be more relatable but retains too much of the stilted quality one might expect from a translation of the original.

Isabel Leonard was a glamorous presence in the title role and provided the chief vocal interest for the evening, calibrating her luxurious mezzo for a more character-driven reading of Songbird’s early letter song. She effectively handled extended farce business around Songbird’s entrapment by the mayor, Don Andres, before introducing a more brilliant sound and effectively deployed vocal flourishes for later appearances, including a big 11 o’clock number, “Tu n’est pas beau, tu n’est pas riche.”

As her beleaguered lover Piquillo, Broadway veteran Ramin Karimloo (recently Nick Arnstein in the Funny Girl revival) did much to enhance the credibility of the show’s musical comedy aspirations. With much of the cast cranked to maximum operetta-humor levels, he provided a counterweight by underplaying moments and lent some critical emotional heft in moments like his wistful jailhouse aria. As Songbird’s pursuer, Don Andres, baritone Edward Nelson was a winning comic foil for the lovers.

WNO’s “Songbird”

The production has a very clear vision of the kinds of shows it wants to evoke, in the vein of recent productions of Kiss Me Kate or Thoroughly Modern Millie. Eric Sean Fogel’s stuffed-to-the-brim direction fills the show with running bits and outsized performances from the supporting cast that nearly cross the line from exhilarating to tiresome. But that level of relentless distraction is probably necessary to hold the material together, and by the delirious closing chorus, one’s quibbles feel washed away in the warm glow of a big finale.

Literal glow is supplied here by Robert Wierzel’s lighting, which bathes the stage in candied colors of amber and pink. Attractive flapper and mobster costumes by Marsha LeBoeuf, Timm Burrow, and Christelle Matou complete the appealing stage picture, against a flexible playing space for the New Orleans cabaret, designed by James F. Rotondo III.

Efforts like Songbird to reclaim historical properties with an unabashed openness to rearranging and rewriting continue to be an intriguing avenue for opera companies looking to infuse new blood into the well-trod comedic entries in the standard rep. Songbird, like a lot of these projects, falls somewhat short in making the new content work, but a winning concept and commitment to execution by cast and crew ultimately make this a compelling entry in the genre.

Photos: Scott Suchman