I am not a big fan of the currently popular idea that an opera libretto must be edited and workshopped into submission before a composer can start work. But on Friday night, faced with Bridgette A. Wimberly’s problematic libretto for “Yardbird,” an opera about Charlie Parker that Opera Philadelphia gave its world premiere at the Kimmel Center, I thought more than once that in this case, someone should definitely have raised some red flags.
The basic problem is the premise. “Yardbird” is set after Parker’s death, in a dream world in which Parker thinks he is still alive and is sitting at Birdland (Riccardo Hernandez’s set filled the stage with giant letters spelling out BIRDLAND and sporting historic photos of jazz artists), trying to write his magnum opus before his time runs out. Since the protagonist is dead before the music starts, and the work’s episodic flashbacks don’t fully flesh him out as a character or explain how he got to where he ended, the piece lacks a propulsive sense of drama, despite being filled with impassioned ex-wives and drugs and even a genuine mad scene (asylum and all).
It’s not without merit. Like many new operas, it’s filled with good intentions, and unlike some, it also has a wonderful cast. The Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder, who has a firm footing in both the jazz and classical worlds, wrote the title role for tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a star of the opera world. Brownlee was on stage for all but one scene of this 90-minute opera and sang, on Friday, very well from the passages of what we might term bel canto scat all the way through to a gorgeous, sweet falsetto on a few notes in the final scene. Parker’s mother, Addie, was played by Angela Brown, whom I last heard in the starring role of “Aida” at the Met and who dug into her lower register and flung out her high notes with power and abandon, and looked, even costumed as a midcentury matriarch, as if she were enjoying every minute.
Add the rich voice of Chrystal Williams as Rebecca, the first of Parker’s four wives, and Rachel Sterrenberg as Chan, the last, along with the imposing Tamara Mumford as the society wife in whose hotel suite Parker dies, and Will Liverman as a mellifluous Dizzy Gillespie, and there’s a lot to sink your ears into — even though the wives (including Angela Mortellaro as Doris) tended to express themselves, in Schnyder’s score, in earnest imprecations involving lots of high notes that rendered words largely unintelligible. (The Gillespie duet offered a welcome and much-needed note of humor and lightness.)
Schnyder’s instrumental writing, sensitively conducted by Corrado Rovaris, was often striking, with a jazzy groove and an audible response of sound to emotional state. Take the tremulous sound, punctured with wah-wahs, of some of the entr’actes, hovering at the edge of the awareness of death, or the long clarinet solo with backup during the rather opaque scene in which Parker is confined to an asylum with other inmates, all standing on chairs.
But vocally, the work is timid. Schnyder’s idiom in this area is less reminiscent of avant-garde jazz than of “Porgy and Bess,” minus the memorable tunes. In trying to bridge the gap between jazz and operatic convention, he ended up writing about one of the great musical innovators in history in music that itself has very little in the way of innovation. (For D.C. opera-lovers, the whole structure might have called to mind “Shadowboxer,” the Joe Louis opera that premiered at the University of Maryland in 2010, another opera written by a jazz-inspired composer, told in flashbacks from a deathbed.)
This brings me to the libretto’s other great sin, which the opera was never able to transcend: It is rooted in cliches. Instead of presenting a rounded character, Wimberly seems to take refuge in using words that don’t say much — Brownlee’s whole entrance aria amounted to saying, “I’m back at Birdland!” and singing to some caged birds — and, worse, in stereotypes. We got the angry black man; we got the paean to the challenge of musical composition (“how do I capture this music?”): both anodyne enough that Brownlee, try as he might, couldn’t forge a specific character out of them, and the director, Ron Daniels, wasn’t able to help.
“Yardbird” was co-commissioned with the Gotham Chamber Opera in New York; the production will come to the Apollo Theater a year hence. But it’s hard to imagine how this piece, with all due appreciation for the impressive resources and right-minded thinking that went into it, can survive — since it never really drew breath to begin with.
continues through June 14 at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia, 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org.