Review: Charlie Parker’s 'Yardbird’

By HEIDI WALESON

Opera Philadelphia has made a big commitment to new repertoire, and the company’s first commission, in partnership with Gotham Chamber Opera, is terrific. “ Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”—which had its world premiere in the intimate Perelman Theater here on Friday and comes to New York next year—unfolds as a fantasia about the great jazz saxophonist, who died suddenly in 1955 at age 34, felled by heroin, alcohol and heart disease. As conjured up by composer Daniel Schnyder and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly and embodied by the splendid tenor Lawrence Brownlee, Parker may be in limbo (his body lay unidentified in a New York morgue for several days), but he is gloriously alive. 

CHARLIE PARKER’S YARDBIRD

Opera Philadelphia

Through June 14

Mr. Schnyder, who is also a saxophonist, has brilliantly integrated the spirit of Parker’s jazz into a 90-minute score for opera singers and a 15-piece classical chamber orchestra, ebulliently conducted by Corrado Rovaris, and made something new. Its rhythms snap and swing, its melodies—including real arias—seize the ear, its ensembles crackle with energy. Ms. Wimberly’s libretto works in tandem with the music, using devices like repetition and theme and variations to capture the essence of a jazz ensemble. 

Charlie, newly dead, has returned to Birdland, the club that was named for him (his nickname was “Yardbird”), and he is trying, for the first time, to write down a classical score. As he is visited by people of his past, we see snapshots of his life through their eyes. His mother, Addie (the powerful Angela Brown), alternately worries that it “ain’t easy to be a mother to a black man child” and exults in her “King of Sax” son, the music showing off Ms. Brown’s extraordinary vocal range. Three fine young singers portray Charlie’s ex-wives: Rebecca (Chrystal Williams), still angry that he deserted her and their son; the soothing Doris (Angela Mortellaro), who prays for him; and the excitable, glamorous Chan (Rachel Sterrenberg), who sings a torchy paean to their love. Tamara Mumford is his wealthy patroness, Nica. 

When the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (Will Liverman) appears and he sings with Parker, his friend and colleague, it feels like a jam session. 

But it all comes back to Bird, and Mr. Brownlee commands the stage, his pure, forthright tenor pulsating with the spirit of the man. Others sing about his demons; Mr. Brownlee’s Charlie breathes music, his escape from the cage of segregation. At the end of the opera, after the other characters sing a dense, complex farewell, Charlie gets the last word, a soaring setting of lines—“I know why the caged bird sings . . . ” from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”—that seems to lift him into the afterlife. Charlie can’t write down that classical piece; Mr. Schnyder has done it for him. 

Director Ron Daniels’s spare but effective production reflects the opera’s buoyant spirit. Riccardo Hernandez’s set is a series of giant hanging letters that spell out “Birdland” and have pictures of jazz greats on them; Scott Zielinski’s lighting makes the frequent time switches comprehensible, as do Emily Rebholz’s period costumes.

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