Several decades after Schubert’s death at age 31, the composer became the subject of an eponymous operetta by Franz von Suppé. Maybe there’s just something too tempting about genius cut short to let it sit there unexploited, which is the dynamic at work in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, given its world premiere by Opera Philadelphia Friday night at the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater. To loosely quote a melding of last lines of several characters in this chamber opera: Parker’s music echoes as the unfinished symphony of a beautiful mind.
And yet, Daniel Schnyder’s haunting mirage of a score does not, thankfully, succumb to pastiche. The great strength of this piece is the music, whose aesthetic is as nimbly third stream as the Modern Jazz Quartet. The Harlem-based Schnyder draws a wide array of 20th -century sounds from his 14-piece orchestra –- jazz, Latin, Middle Eastern, classical at the upper end of the dissonance spectrum -– but does so with incredible cunning. In an eerie mental hospital scene where Parker is in a straitjacket, an alto flute slithers around in the creepiest corners of dissonance while the jazz world shines through from a realm just beneath. It’s these kinds of moments, and there are many, that make Charlie Parker’s Yardbird a worthy new member of the repertoire.
It’s also what makes the work worth some revision. The 90-minute, intermission-less piece, with a story and libretto by playwright Bridgette A. Wimberly, purports to be about Parker’s quest to write his final masterpiece, for orchestra, which he undertakes in the hours after his death. But that thread, while dangled at the start and tied up (too neatly) at the end, gets very much lost in the middle as Parker’s ghost relives some personal history. We hear from wives wronged, and his mother, who fears for her son’s indulgences. Dizzy Gillespie makes an appearance, as does “Nica,” Baroness Pannonica De Koenigswarter, the Rothschild scion who served as bebop’s patroness.
Wimberly sets loose some wonderful characters, but they wouldn’t have been half as compelling had they not been realized by several of the singers in this cast. Angela Brown as Addie Parker was astonishing. She had tremendous moral authority as Parker’s mother, a power she showed in the depth of her voice (dramatic soprano doesn’t quite capture it), and a highly nuanced control of emotional inflections (alternately silken and rough-hewn). What this added up to, technically speaking, was someone you didn’t mess with, and the kind of singer-role affinity that is hard to imagine ever untangling.
She had a terrific partner in Lawrence Brownlee, as Charlie. The scene where she’s telling her son to get out of Kansas City is frantic –-rhythmically dense, harmonically fascinating –- and the two of them nail it beautifully. Brownlee was a wonder, as was the vocal writing. There is some jazz in the part –- at one point, he mimes playing a sax while letting loose with a long and elaborate riff –- but most of the time Brownlee is asked to occupy the highest part of the tenor range in quick time, and somehow manages to do it with grace while rendering the (English) supertitles superfluous.
Schnyder gives some of the opera’s most beautiful music to Dizzie Gillespie, who, while imploring Parker not to ride that “tar horse” (heroin), sings amid a suspended, opiate haze. Baritone Will Liverman realized the part vividly by finding deep crevices of meaning.
A word about the orchestra. Much of the magic of the piece was happening here, or rather, down there, in the pit of the Perelman, where there was a wide range of abilities among players led by fine conductor Corrado Rovaris. Regardless, you felt there must have been a way to hear more of what was going on between the singers and instrumentalists. Dead at 34, Parker never realized his piece for orchestra. His soul is set free at the end, as caged birds ascend along with scenery of block letters superimposed with images of jazz greats. It’s a cornball ending. But a great piece did get written, by Schnyder, and perhaps with a few more tweaks –- some tightening here, some more about Parker’s elusive masterpiece there –- it, too, can soar.