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Charlie Parker’s Yardbird review at Hackney Empire, London – ‘underwhelming’

Lawrence Brownlee in Charlie Parker's Yardbird at Hackney Empire. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith Lawrence Brownlee in Charlie Parker's Yardbird at Hackney Empire. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
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Widely seen in the US since 2015 and now receiving its European premiere, Daniel Schnyder’s opera is a classical-jazz fusion which tilts the balance unexpectedly in favour of the former.

Often atonal, its modernist idiom borrows ideas from the legendary saxophonist’s own bebop catalogue rather than going for easy memorability or melodic charm.

A classic troubled artist narrative, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird is told in oblique flashback. When the curtain rises we see the ghost of the recently deceased Parker in the jazz club named after him, surrounded by images of the heroes and martyrs that are his jazz peers.

Riccardo Hernandez’s spare but handsome sets add resonance to Bridgette A Wimberly’s workaday libretto. Later Parker relives more tangible encounters with key figures in his emotional and professional life. But it is an inevitable weakness of the piece that his iconic status has to be taken on trust.

An imported cast does its best with sometimes intractable material. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, more often associated with bel canto but here making brief forays into scat singing, is sympathetic in the lead even if occasionally covered by the 16-strong orchestra.

Angela Brown brings heft to the predictably drawn role of Addie, Charlie’s mother, while baritone Will Liverman is a plausible Dizzy Gillespie. Chrystal E Williams, the young mezzo who plays the first Mrs Parker, is the night’s real discovery, a vocal powerhouse with superior acting ability.

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Slick production values and some dedicated performances enhance an underwhelming new jazz-classical fusion