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In Review > North America

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

PHILADELPHIA
Opera Philadelphia
6/5/15

In Review Philadelphia Yardbird hdl 815
Baritone Will Liverman as Dizzy Gillespie, soprano Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan Parker and Lawrence Brownlee as Charlie Parker in Opera Philadelphia's world-premiere production of Charlie Parker's Yardbird
© Dominic M. Mercier 2015
In Review Philadelphia Yardbird lg 815
Brownlee in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Opera Philadelphia
© Dominic Mercier 2015

The world premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, on June 5 at the Perelman Theater, occasioned deserved buzz for Opera Philadelphia. Crafted around the superb tenor Lawrence Brownlee, this new work by Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder, on a libretto by poet/playwright Bridgette A. Wimberly, already has a future: it is a coproduction with Gotham Chamber Opera, which plans to stage Yardbird at Harlem’s iconic Apollo Theater next season. With some mild tweaking for narrative coherence and flow, the ambitious, enjoyable (if on occasion repetitive) opera should travel as long as Brownlee — or his cover here, Joshua Stewart — wants to sing it. The first world premiere the Philadelphia company has offered since Menotti’s 1976 Hero (which sank without a trace), Yardbird marks a happy moment in general director David Devan’s cobweb-shedding American Repertory Project.

Operas about or incorporating jazz are a tricky order. Schnyder made the brilliant choice, in evoking the sound world of the legendary saxophone player (1920–55) who ushered in be-bop, not to maximize the sax in the score. Among the crack band of sixteen — very convincingly led by Corrado Rovaris, who shepherded the project — the flute, clarinet, trumpets, piano and percussion were the key personnel. Scatting and jazz rhythms also figured in the writing for Brownlee’s stunningly voiced Parker, and for the character of Dizzy Gillespie, sung by the eloquent baritone Will Liverman, who also showed fine legato. 

Schnyder orchestrated the work deftly, drawing on other musical traditions and combining them skillfully with quite sophisticated classical structures, including passacaglia. Though there are several solo scenes and numbers have distinct “buttons” inviting applause, it’s essentially through-composed, with almost no speech. Much of the work is comprised of duets, but there’s also a skillfully layered quintet filling the equivalent of the Rosenkavalier trio “eleven o’clock number” slot.

Wimberly’s libretto, though containing moments of power, charm and insight, is of a more familiar cut — the historical–biographical fantasia. Certainly, the theater of the past few decades has produced many shows centered around deceased “name” artists taking place on their last days, during which they relive earlier experiences and struggle to leave some testament or sense of clarity. Here, on March 12, 1955, Parker is dead, his body lying in the morgue. He returns to “Birdland” — the club of his triumphs that took his nickname — to try to create some final work and in the process reviews his past relationships. Most expositional pitfalls were avoided here, yet without reading Wimberly’s synopsis (or without good prior knowledge of Parker’s life and career), some of the action might have been confusing, despite Ron Daniels’s capable direction. The name and identity of Parker’s (non-singing) pusher is one issue; more urgently, the (messy) details involving faith and family pose a narrative challenge so far not completely addressed. Besides the aristocratic “Nica,” his patron, in whose apartment he died, we meet three women who called themselves his wives — Rebecca, Doris and Chan.

Angela Brown gave great spirit and passion to the gratefully conceived part of Addie, Bird’s heroic single mother. Brown’s soprano retains amazing punch and focus at both ends of her compass, if less projection and clarity in midrange. Tamara Mumford’s Nica offered elegant stage presence and beautifully sculpted tone (save at the top, always this fine contralto’s Achilles heel where intonation is concerned). The wives all did well, in aptly differentiated assignments. The pious Doris suited Angela Mortellaro’s warm, light Puccini-lyric soprano. Rachel Sterrenberg’s admirable dynamic control underscored Chan’s piquant sensuality. Chrystal Williams’s mezzo sounded fiery and gorgeous as Rebecca; alongside Liverman (her high-school classmate in Virginia), she fielded the sharpest diction among the supporting roles. Verbally, Brownlee proved, as ever, crystal-clear. His ringing vocalism and unstinting commitment fueled an impressive evening for him and for Opera Philadelphia. spacer 

DAVID SHENGOLD

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