Review: ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ at the Apollo Hails a Bebop Giant
By ZACHARY WOOLFEAPRIL 3, 2016
Lawrence Brownlee plays the title role in “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” a collaboration between Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Charlie Parker came into his own in the jazz clubs of Harlem, so there was undeniable poetry in his return to the neighborhood in operatic form. But “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” given its New York premiere on Friday at the Apollo Theater, evoked none of that masterly saxophonist and composer’s wild beauty and mesmerizing focus.
Instead, this slack sketch of an opera, introduced last year by Opera Philadelphia and brought to the Apollo by that enterprising company, offered wanly jazz-flavored music, by Daniel Schnyder; a confusing libretto, by Bridgette A. Wimberly; and stodgy direction, by Ron Daniels.
The plot’s framing conceit is that Parker’s ghost has traveled to Birdland, the Midtown club named for him, to write a musical masterpiece. That is the shaggily supernatural setup for a standard if needlessly scattered sprint through biographical highlights: Parker’s childhood in Kansas City, Mo., his collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie, his addictions, his romantic liaisons, his incarceration in a California mental hospital.
None of these episodes or characters come to life; the women, in particular, are barely differentiated. In both its low-slung swinging and jazzily peppy modes, the 90-minute score, conducted by Corrado Rovaris, is a weak echo of “Porgy and Bess.” A handful of personal touches — like an eerie solo flute line weaving through the mental institution scene — have little dramatic effect, nor does the overly literal libretto (“I’m blowing all my pain out through my horn”).
The tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a bel-canto star, sang with classy polish as Parker, showing how close scatting can be to Rossinian coloratura. But he struggled at the low end of his range. The baritone Will Liverman was a vibrant Gillespie.
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Angela Brown crooned and belted as Parker’s mother, Addie. The incisive, lively soprano Emily Pogorelc stood out among the other women in the musician’s life (Elena Perroni, Chrystal E. Williams, Tamara Mumford).
The Apollo and Opera Philadelphia — which teamed up to present “Yardbird” when Gotham Chamber Opera, an original co-commissioner, closed in the fall — recently announced plans to collaborate more in coming years. Good news, but this was a disheartening start.
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