REVIEW: Charlie Parker's Yardbird at Hackney Empire

Curtain-call: the principals of Charlie Parker's Yardbird
including tenor Lawrence Brownlee (centre)


Charlie Parker's Yardbird 
(Hackney Empire, presented in partnership with Opera Philadelphia and ENO. 11 June 2017. Second performance of run. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Opera is a many-layered business. It requires massive forethought and planning - and a large amount of money - to make it happen at all. High-quality people in all kinds of roles give of their consummate professional best. So, yesterday afternoon at Hackney Empire there were singers of world class singing their hearts out. Lawrence Brownlee as the central character delivered heroic tenor singing, Angela Brown was completely winning the audience over emotionally, in the role of his pleading yet assertive mother. Down in the pit conductor Clark Rundell was injecting constant life and musical clarity into the whole venture and keeping superb unanimity between pit and stage, coaxing colours - like Amy Harman's characterful bassoon - out of the orchestra. And the lighting and stage designers, and the people operating the surtitles, and the prosthetics people who had created a Charlie Parker corpse as the central visual focus... as far as I could see, nobody put a foot wrong in an uninterrupted hour-and-a half show.

But at the heart of the piece is a very odd idea indeed. Charlie Parker's Yardbird is a 90-minute apotheosis (second meaning) for Parker. At the outset he is already plainly, visibly dead. Cold. Gone, The central omnipresent character played by Brownlee is his ghost, who is re-living episodes his life, being loved or hectored by the women he was close to, and in the latter stages being raised to God-like status as if we have landed among the heavenly choirs in the second act of Goethe's Faust. Composer Daniel Schnyder and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberley have gone for the record of the longest meditation on death in opera, outdoing both Boris Godunov and Werther by a country mile, and probably being pipped at the post in a head-to-head for that prize (like the Brownlee brothers - no relation! - in Rio - now there's an operatic subject...) with Hindemith's Cardillac.

The composer was explaining afterwards that he had put in allusions to Ornithology, Now's the Time and the Yardbird Suite. Possibly on a second hearing, knowing what to listen out for, more might be revealed, but the references were of the blink-and-you-miss-them variety. Stylistically, I found much of the opera closer to Gershwin' s Porgy and Bess, and the  inclusion at one point of a When The Saints... reference jarring in the extreme.

I also found the libretto weak. I wrote down this in the dark: "Play me like the perfect harmony that lights your sky in Eb." (?!) The constantly repeated assertions of Parker's holy status began to feel detached and abstract. Similarly, the injustice of society felt like an unrooted backdrop, almost shoe-horned in rather than given  any context or supporting storyline. And the inclusion of the poem Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar, which fortuitously references caged birds as its central image, was just too far-fetched and tangential to be relevant, despite a very determined attempt to clamp it down into the narrative.

There has been the movie Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood. There have been countless overt tributes to Charlie Parker in jazz. There is the lasting legacy in music deeply absorbed from players like Sonny Stitt and Phil Woods and ever onwards through Charles McPherson and Steve Slagle - and our own superb Peter King. Indeed there was a period in jazz when you had to be Lee Konitz (or very determined indeed) to let his influence pass you by.

When I emerged from Charlie Parker's Yardbird my instinct was above all to want to re-connect more authentically and with more context with these brilliant, flickering, tragic geniuses of jazz, to re-centre myself with a tribute that gets closer to the object of its veneration and places it properly, poetically in the right context: Hampton Hawes' book Raise Up Off Me does it for me every time.


Charlie Parker's Yardbird continues at Hackney Empire until 17 June

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