Review: ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ Uses Opera to Tell a Jazz Story

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

PHILADELPHIA — Writing an opera about a famous person who lived a well-documented life is difficult enough. Writing an opera about a famous musician is even harder, especially a figure like the towering jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker, a pioneer of bebop, an artist whose music still defines the art form and remains as astounding as ever. How can a composer make Parker the subject of an opera without putting Parker’s music into the score?

The composer Daniel Schnyder and the librettist Bridgette A. Wimberlyhave come up with effective solutions to these challenges in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” an awkward title for an opera that is anything but. “Yardbird,” a 90-minute, swift-paced chamber opera with a pulsing, jazz-infused score, had its premiere here on Friday night in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, presented by Opera Philadelphia, which commissioned it along with Gotham Chamber Opera, which will present the work in New York next year.

The solution the creators devised for structuring a narrative that sweeps through Parker’s tumultuous life is a fresh variation on the device of flashbacks. The opera opens on the day Parker died in 1955 at 34 from the combined effect of heroin addiction, alcoholism and a weakened heart. He died in the hotel suite of his British-born friend and patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, also known as “Nica.” In “Yardbird” Parker first appears as a kind of ghost, having arrived at Birdland, the Manhattan jazz club named for him. In this spare, fluid production, directed by Ron Daniels with set designs by Riccardo Hernandez, the club looks mystical, with a row of video panels spelling out “Birdland,” each one showing the image of a jazz great.

Charlie has come through a storm. But once this Charlie, the energetic, bright-voiced tenor Lawrence Brownlee, removes his wet overcoat, he looks dapper in a three-piece-suit and seems elated to be at Birdland.

He goes through a kind of purgatory, where the people who shaped his life appear: Addie, his mother, who raised him as an only child in Kansas City, Mo.; his wives, especially Chan Parker, his free-spirited last wife (though they never legally married); and Dizzy Gillespie, the ingenious jazz trumpeter and Parker’s most important colleague. The opera becomes a series of scenes in which Charlie relives his relationships and crises in order to complete the process of dying.

The Swiss-born Mr. Schnyder, who has won acclaim for works that combine jazz and modernist contemporary styles, knew better than to fold actual Parker compositions into his score. Instead, he takes Parker riffs and motifs and uses them as thematic cells. Charlie sometimes sings bursts of bebop, scatting, which Mr. Brownlee deftly handles. Mostly though, the lines unfold in snappy, lyrical phrases. In crucial scenes, Mr. Brownlee, a superb bel canto tenor, dispatched runs that suggested jazzy Rossini.

A problem in combining jazz and modernist idioms can be that the resulting music sounds less like a merger than a compromise, an issue with some less effective scenes in “Yardbird.” But as the story developed the score, played vibrantly by a 15-piece ensemble conducted by Corrado Rovaris, grew darker and riskier. A powerful scene comes when Addie, Charlie’s mother, sings a bluesy duet with Rebecca, his first wife, with whom he had a son, a child Parker saw little after he went to New York as a young man. The soprano Angela Brown brings deep richness and earthy expressivity to Addie in an affecting portrayal. Despair suffuses the poignant singing of the mezzo-soprano Chrystal Williams as Rebecca.

The opera does less well at plumbing the wreck Parker’s drug use made of his personal life. A climactic episode depicts what happened on a tour to Southern California, when Parker, on heroin, wound up being arrested, nearly naked, on the street and confined to a hospital. Despite sirens, gnashing brass and strobe lights, this scene does not suggest the severity of Parker’s breakdown. But the next one, in the hospital, works powerfully, with Charlie and other patients in straitjackets all looking lost and hearing voices. The eerie music, with wiry lines and slippery chords, conveys collective disorientation.

Mr. Schnyder comes closest to evoking Parker bebop in the wonderful scenes between Charlie and Dizzy, here the dynamic baritone Will Liverman. “You are the other half of my heartbeat,” Dizzy sings in a jazzy, bopping duet.

The mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford brings opulent sound and elegance to Nica. The soprano Angela Mortellaro grabs her moments in the role of Doris, Parker’s proprietary third wife. Rachel Sterrenberg makes an ideal Chan, especially in the wrenching scene when she mourns the death of the baby girl she had with Parker.

I only wish some of the modernist complexities and grit in Mr. Schnyder’s music came through more overtly, rather than being folded into a score that sometimes seems eager to please. Still, “Yardbird” kept me involved and admiring right through.

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