By Lesley Valdes
PHILADELPHIA — Thanks to iTunes, YouTube, and the like, you don’t have to be a discophile to know the achievements or life story of the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.
But here’s what you should know about the world premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird by composer Daniel Schnyder and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly that Opera Philadelphia presented June 5 and scheduled for radio replay on July 4 at 12:00 p.m. on WRTI-FM at wrti.org: The opera contains very little, if any, of Parker’s own music. In fact, there is only a small amount of saxophone to be heard in the pit band. Which is ironic, since composer Schnyder is himself a saxophonist whose music often incorporates both classical and jazz idioms.
This chamber work suggests show tunes as often as it does opera or jazz. And it could use a much tighter pit band performing it — and also a tighter, less repetitious libretto for its next go-round, when Gotham Chamber Opera takes its turn with the co-production in May 2016.
These are the disappointments. Let’s go to the positives of the Opera Philadelphia production, which is playing five sold-out performances in the Perlman Theater at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts through June 14. To appreciate this chamber opera, you must think opera, i.e., singing. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a magnificent instrument of a man and a persuasive singing actor, is the musical stand-in for the revolutionary saxophonist, who, with his great friend Dizzy Gillespie, started the bebop revolution.
The intention of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird is to provide not only a vehicle for Schnyder’s hybrid musical style, but also to display Brownlee’s virtuosity, for he is a tenor of bounteous range and beauty. Angela Brown, as Parker’s mother, also was dazzling opening night with her big mezzo-soprano and theatrical gifts, though she tended to swallow consonants.
Making a vivid impression was the Dizzy Gillespie of baritone Will Liverman, whose performance went from strength to strength, and, as Doris Parker, soprano Angela Mortellaro was convincing. Their roles also featured some of Schnyder’s most compelling music.
The opera opens with Parker, dead at 34, hiding in the limbo of the night club Birdland to compose the big orchestral work he had dreamed of. It’s a conceit based on the fact that following his death, Parker’s body lay unidentified in a New York morgue for several days while his family tried to locate him. In the opera, directed by Ron Daniels, as the saxophonist tries to work, he is interrupted by three of his ex-wives and his current wife, Chan, as well as his mother Addie, his heroin pusher Moose the Mooch, and Dizzy Gillespie. (Flashbacks, accommodated by lighting, change Birdland to Parker’s childhood home and other venues.)
There are roughly 21 scenes. I counted five, perhaps six, that suggested the beauty, the urgency, or the intensity of Parker’s music and made me stop clocking the production’s 90 minutes without intermission. Yes, there are very attractive melodies (good lyrics, too), but too often they are without the layering of secondary melody or harmony, without the changes of rhythm that could make the score so much more interesting.
This lack of intrigue was evident in the opening solo, in which “Bird,” as Parker was called, tells us he is back in Birdland. When the historical Charlie Parker played standards with a string section, he never played “straight.” He would zig, he would zag, he would spiral his lines, impatient with nostalgia. But straight melody is too often what you get in this opera, with lyrics repeated till you could say them by heart yourself.
The first interesting scene comes on a Sunday morning when young Dizzy is practicing and the neighbors begin to complain. The music is upbeat and clamorous: layered, though it sounds like Dixieland to which tritones have been added, as if this is a musical. Even better is the sequence in which ex-wife Doris interrupts Bird, who sings about the night Stravinsky came to Birdland to hear him. “Stravinsky sat right here. That bird was on fire,” Brownlee’s Parker scats. “But could he quote me!”
Brownlee’s lithe scatting is impressive for an opera tenor, but in no way can it match the demonic urgency of Parker’s saxophone. Fortunately, the music underneath Bird and Doris’s duo is complex, and as it builds rhythmically and harmonically, it meets Wimberly’s provocative, sometimes poignant, lyrics. “I’m only what I think, and my thought is music,” Bird tells Doris. “But my music dissolves.” Music is everything and it dissolves. Scenes with Doris Parker and Dizzy Gillespie are the heart and soul of this opera.
Not that all the scenes with Dizzy are as important musically as they could be. “Be Bop’s Gonna Change the World” conveys more of pop’s harmonic predictability than true bebop, which was known for the urgency of its unexpected rhythms. This number feels almost metronomic. Dizzy’s haunting solo urging Bird “not to ride that horse” (of heroin), however, is among the opera’s most beautiful and the baritone’s most effective. It’s essential that Dizzy is here to underline Parker’s musical significance.
Unfortunately, the young Miles Davis, who hero-worshiped Bird, is not here. How about a trio with Miles, instead of the insensitive one with Dizzy, Chan Parker, and Bird, whose comedy overshoots the mark? That sequence makes Parker’s last wife appear more foolish than she surely was. Soprano Rachel Sterrenberg appeared comfortable with the comedic mask but her vocalism was strained.
“My Horn,” Bird’s penultimate solo, is redeemed from its sing-song nature by Schnyder’s scoring, which layers instrumental lines against the singer’s melody. Keyboard, bass, saxophone, flute, drums — we’re being steered away from sentiment into intensity. Unfortunately, the musicians weren’t absolutely together. The band, led by Corrado Rovaris, with the aptly named bassist Miles B. Davis and Adeline Tomasone’s fluent flute, sounded well enough generally. But here they sounded like classical musicians who don’t play enough jazz: clunky, laborious rather than heated, charged.
If Charlie Parker’s Yardbird wants to suggest the legacy, it has to be taut. The playing has to be as consistently superb as the singing, and so does the writing. It needs reworking. Most operas are revised at least somewhat after their premieres, sometimes substantially. Ask Osvaldo Golijov about Ainadamar’s world premiere journey from Tanglewood to Santa Fe.
For more information about the Opera Philadelphia production, go here.
Lesley Valdes is a writer, critic, and poet living in Philadelphia. She is completing her first manuscript of poems, In the Starlight Room.