THE ATLANTA OPERA launched its 2018-19 season at Le Maison Rouge at Paris on Ponce with Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a “bebopera” by Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly. (seen Sept. 30) Commissioned by Opera Philadelphia for tenor Lawrence Brownlee, the ninety-minute, one-act opera had its premiere in Philadelphia in 2015 and has received subsequent performances at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Madison Opera and English National Opera.
Like André Previn, Schnyder has demonstrated how satisfying opera singing juxtaposed against jazz idioms can be. Echoes of Parker’s own musical riffs were laced throughout the score; it was a dreamlike portrayal of Parker after death as he encounters his former wives, his mother, and even Dizzie Gillespie at New York City’s first Birdland Jazz Club on Broadway. Wimberly masterfully managed to create a storyline without a plot. And Schnyder’s text setting of Wimberly’s colloquial but nuanced text was remarkably well done.
Stage director Omer Ben Seadia and scenic designer Christopher S. Dills recreated a theatre-in the-round nightclub atmosphere in which audience members were seated at café tables as singers moved throughout a dimly-lit room. Birdcages and brass instruments hung from the ceiling while a small instrumental ensemble of eight was concealed behind flimsy fabric. (AO general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun convinced composer Schnyder to create a reduced orchestration for Atlanta.)
Joshua Stewart, Brownlee’s cover at Opera Philadelphia, sang the role of Charlie Parker’s specter in Atlanta, alternating performances with Martin Bakari. The provocative, high-lying first number, “What a night…Birdland” seemed to stretch Stewart, taking him to the extremities of his range and mimicking the demands placed upon any jazz instrumentalist. Stewart pulled off both lyric and melismatic passages while the ensemble, under the direction of Clinton Smith, kept the mood lively.
Atlanta welcomed several cast members from the original Philadelphia production. Angela Brown sang the role of Parker’s mother Addie: it was thrilling to hear the power and grandeur of her voice up close. Mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams was Rebecca, the Kansas City wife Parker married early in life. Williams sang naturally, with an abundance of intensity, while maintaining lustrous tone. Lyric soprano Rachel Sterrenberg sounded absolutely at ease in the role of Chan, Parker’s common-law fourth wife.
Local singers Maria Valdes and Gina Perregrino inhabited the roles of Doris, another of Parker’s wives and Nica, his patroness, respectively. Mezzo-soprano Perregrino, a member of last year’s Atlanta Opera Studio, has a Larmore-esque, many-hued voice and gave a regal performance. Baritone Sidney Outlaw was a boisterous, broad-voiced Dizzy Gillespie, bebopping his way around the room, trumpet in hand, reminding us of that era that belonged to so many jazz legends, and distracting us from Charlie Parker’s broken life—if only for a moment. —Stephanie Adrian