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BWW Review: Lawrence Brownlee Dominates CHARLIE PARKER'S YARDBIRD at New York's Apollo

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee as famed jazz
saxophonist, Charlie ("Bird") Parker.
Photo: Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

Charlie "Bird" Parker, the great jazz saxophonist, who is the central character in CHARLIE PARKER'S YARDBIRD--the opera that had its New York premiere last week at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem--was known for his formidable musicianship and the creation of bebop, but also his troubled life, his alcoholism and drug use. When I interviewed tenor Lawrence Brownlee the other day about creating the titled role in the opera, he said that--working with Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette Wimberly (the composer and librettist, respectively, of the piece) and the director Ron Daniels--he tried to show that Parker's life was "more than his addictions."

In some ways, I think that being too respectful of Bird's legacy took them astray. Despite a vibrant and often soaring score by Schnyder, which casts modern "classical" writing into a jazz beat (complete with scatting, plus some sultry Latin undertones), and some wonderful performances, it has maneuvered itself into a corner. By pushing itself away from that addictive side of his personality, and his sometimes erratic behavior, Wimberly's libretto never really showed him struggling, let alone out of control. Neither does it show him really busting loose--though that's not to say that the opera is dull, because it isn't.

The opera's creators decided not to take a linear approach to the storyline and that seems right in telling the story of the great saxophonist known for his skills at improvisation. The handsome physical production, by Ricardo Hernandez with lighting by Scott Zielinski and Drew Billiau, worked very well, with costumes by Emily Rebholz. It is set after Parker's death, in a limbo that takes the form of Birdland, the New York nightclub named for him, as Parker tries to deal with unfinished business, which, he thinks, means composing his masterpiece, the "unfinished symphony" of his "beautiful mind."

There was some wonderful singing, especially from Brownlee, who was almost never off stage and embraced the classical and bebop sides of the score. The role was written for the tenor, who's justifiably known for his high notes, and his performance shows that it fits him perfectly, from penetrating to somber, from the highs to the lows and everything in between. You'd never know that this kind of virtuosic singing was not his usual environment (i.e., operas by Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti). There was even a great duet for Brownlee and baritone Will Liverman as Parker's famed friend and colleague, Dizzy Gillespie, where the two got to scat--in operatic style, of course--and seem to be having a great time. (So does the audience.)

But there weren't enough details about "Parker the Man," which made it much harder to really bring him to life. And without that, it was hard to fathom what his three wives and the elusive socialite Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (Nica), his friend and patroness, in whose hotel apartment he died, missed about him. The four women--soprano Elena Perroni , mezzo Chrystal E. Williams and especially soprano Emily Pogorelc, a late replacement, as his three wives and mezzo Tamara Mumford as Nica--nonetheless gave powerfully sung performances. Soprano Angela Brown was a standout as Addie, Parker's mother, with music from Schnyder that showed off her resonant lower register.

The Opera Philadelphia orchestra, led by Corrado Rovaris, gave a thoughtful yet full-bodied account of Schnyder's score, with a shout-out to Adeline Tomasone for the extended flute solo.

The opera premiered a year ago at Opera Philadelphia, one of the country's top incubators for new opera, which commissioned the work. While it may have its shortcomings, YARDBIRD is original, with its own take on new opera. There's a memorial to the musician in Kansas City that says, "'Bird' Lives!" And so, it seems, does the art form.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow