“Yardbird” takes flight, mixing opera and jazz with skill, panache

Sat Mar 25, 2017 at 3:50 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Lawrence Brownlee stars in "Charlie Parker's Yardbird" at the Harris Theater. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia
Lawrence Brownlee stars in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” at the Harris Theater. Photo: Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia

Six years ago when Lyric Opera launched its Broadway musical series there was much debate about what this means for the future of American and contemporary opera at the company. At that time I suggested in a column that if Lyric doesn’t wish to produce contemporary operas in the main house, the company should explore presenting such works in smaller off-site venues like the Harris Theater.

Friday night the company did just that with the Chicago premiere of the “jazz opera” Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, presented via Lyric Unlimited at the Harris.

Lyric Unlimited’s goal of attracting younger and more diverse audiences is a laudable one that appears to have had some outreach success. In terms of musical quality, their efforts have been more varied: Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, heavily promoted as a “mariachi opera,” turned out to be a sentimental play with mariachi music. And while Wlad Marhulets’ The Property offered more substantial music, that too was largely a spoken-word drama with klezmer-flavored vocal interludes.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, however, is the real thing, as shown at the Harris Friday night. Daniel Schnyder’s chamber opera is a skillful, through-composed work that blends jazz and operatic idioms in a compact form without diluting or patronizing either genre.

The opera tells of Charlie Parker, the celebrated jazz saxophonist and bebop pioneer whose life of excess led to his early death at age 34 in 1955. The 90-minute opera isn’t a strictly biographical narrative but rather a free-form fantasia on Parker’s life.

The real Charlie Parker apparently was no rose–and Bridgette A. Wimberley’s libretto doesn’t ignore his philandering, drug abuse or time spent in a mental asylum. Yet the opera is largely an upbeat and optimistic take on a great American jazz musician.

The famed club Birdland– titled after Parker’s nickname–serves as a unit set of sorts. Beginning with Parker’s death in the house of his patroness Baroness Nica de Rothschild, we meet Parker in a string of episodes with significant people from his tumultuous life, including his mother Addie, his close friend and musical collaborator Dizzy Gillespie, and his three wives Rebecca, Doris and Chan.

Composer Schnyder is a jazz and classical saxophonist himself and his ease in both idioms was apparent in the fluency and panache of his music. Schnyder avoided incorporating wholesale Parker excerpts in his score but elements of scat, bebop, gospel and blues are gracefully intertwined with recitative, solo song-arias and coloratura lines. The score is attractive, varied and lively with vocal challenges for the entire cast (though the consistently high tessitura for women’s voices gets a bit wearing over an unbroken ninety minutes).

Lyric Unlimited has imported the Opera Philadelphia production that gave the work its world premiere in 2015, including most of the original cast.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird was created as a vehicle for Lawrence Brownlee and it is the acclaimed tenor’s winning performance that elevates the entire show. Ebullient and consistently engaging, Brownlee’s energetic portrayal makes us overlook the libretto’s weaker and more trite moments. Schnyder’s vocal writing for Parker gives Brownlee many opportunities to showcase his high tenor voice, and the singer sailed through the leaping coloratura, scat riffs and jazz-inflected solos with fearless technical facility and crystal-clear diction.

The rest of the cast was equally solid dramatically if somewhat more variable in terms of vocal quality. Will Liverman brought his dark and incisive baritone to Gillespie and proved equally at ease with the populist as well as operatic elements. Julie Miller was an imposing and sympathetic presence as Baroness Nica de Rothschild, with Angela Brown characterful as Parker’s proud and supportive mother. Rachel Sterrenberg was a glamorous presence as Parker’s wife Chan, though her words were often inscrutable. Krysty Swann and Angela Mortellaro as Parker’s first two wives, Rebecca and Doris, capably rounded out the cast.

Aided by Ron Daniels’ fluid and unobtrusive direction, Riccardo Hernandez’s simple set design offered large descending letters spelling out Birdland with photos of jazz greats on them, economically and effectively setting the scene along with a few tables and chairs. (Someone, please fix the misspelling of Stravinsky in the surtitles.)

Conductor Kelly Kuo led the 16-member chamber ensemble in a vital performance that sounded well-prepared and coordinated with the stage action.

Lyric should consider expanding its Harris imprint to include more contemporary chamber operas as well as neglected American works of the past. Meanwhile Charlie Parker’s Yardbird is a superb start to what one hopes will become a regular series.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday at the Harris Theater. lyricopera.org

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