Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Review Charlie Parker's Yardbird

Charlie Parker's Yardbird
Composer Daniel Schnyder
Libretto Bridgette A Wimberley

Sax Appeal

It's a rare treat for TLT and her sidekick with finely tuned engine to be able to review opera - and even rarer a new work.

So we were excited (very uncool for a reviewer to say, but true) to enter the gilded auditorium of the Hackney Empire to see and hear Charlie Parker's Yardbird, a chamber piece with a cast of seven.

Bebop pioneer saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker developed a fast-paced, challenging form of jazz in the 1940s and 1950s before his early death at the age of 34. But in Yardbird we encounter a man left in a surreal limbo trapped between life and death.

Lawrence Brownlee, celebrated for his bel canto tenor Rossini roles, is Parker determined to put on paper a lasting symphonic legacy. Yet his efforts are tangled with the lives of the five living women brought into his orbit whose lives are also irrevocably changed by his life and death.

Yardbird is structured as a series of flashbacks from this afterlife. The clear movements move fluently from the repercussions of Parker's death in the hotel room of wealthy jazz patroness and friend Nico von Koenigswarter (mezzo soprano Julie Miller) and different stages of his life including his musical partnership with jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (baritone Will Liverman).

Designer Riccardo Hernandez has created a versatile abstract nightclub set, flanked on either side by small delicate birds in cages, with giant letters lowered down in between, spelling out the name of one of his most famous works. The towering letters are filled with the magnified features of jazz musicians.

This suits the piece where the characters in the different time periods of Parker's life step forward individually. From Nico back to his Kansas City mother, Addie (soprano Angela Brown), his wives Rebecca (mezzo soprano Chrystal E Williams), Doris (soprano Elena Perroni) and his final common-law partner Chan (lyric soprano Rachel Sterrenberg). And of course bandleader Dizzy Gillespie.  

This is a polished, beautifully sung production, originally mounted by director Ron Daniels in Philadelphia in 2015 and here directed by Amanda Consol. Clark Rundell conducts a 15-piece orchestra which includes Mick Foster's alto sax.

Yet for all the power of the vocal and instrumental  performances, it's dramatically a strangely thin rendering of Parker's short life. Bridget A Wimberley's libretto feels somewhat on the nose, even if there are moments of inspiration such as the verbal image of black notes caged on a stave.

However the opera veers between the specifics of an extraordinary musical talent ravaged by heroin  and a more generalised indictment of the American black experience and segregation. In the end, this  does not totally satisfy in either area.

Apparently, there are quotes from Parker's music in Schnyder's score, but we only learnt of these in the after-show panel discussion and we feel prior knowledge was needed to pick them up. Potentially the most potent love song in Yardbird is Parker serenading the sleek curves of his beloved saxophone.

However the lack of Parker's own quicksilver playing is keenly felt and Yardbird therefore becomes a rather more generic, if slick and poised, telling of a black musician's story.

While TLT and her sidekick have enjoyed a range of 18th and 19th century operas in the past, we are punters expecting to be entertained rather than experts in the genre. We are glad to have experienced this 90 minute opera and think it well-worth catching for its synthesis of jazz and the classical.

This was a refreshing operatic interlude in TLT's reviewing repertoire and would also make a good introduction to opera appealing to a diverse audience and tastes. It's an upper range amber/green light.

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