Madison Opera’s production is stellar, but ‘Yardbird’ is a thin work

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

The mark of great theater piece is the show’s ability to take ordinary lives and make them extraordinary. Madison Opera’s production of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, unfortunately, leans a bit in the opposite direction.

The 100-minute work by composer Daniel Schnyder and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly chronicles 48 hours at the end of the life of jazz giant Charlie Parker (Joshua Stewart), who helped introduce the world to bebop. The relative absence of Parker’s music throughout the production, however, may make the uninitiated wonder what all the fuss was about.

That’s not to say that the 2015 opera, Schnyder’s second, doesn’t provide an ample showcase for Madison Opera’s usual high performance and production standards. It’s just that the libretto about the progenitor of bebop and the women in his life leaves a few too many questions unanswered, and those thirsting for examples of Parker’s complex virtuosity remain unquenched.

Madison Opera deserves kudos for being only the second company to mount the 2015 opera, which takes the stage again on Feb. 12 at Overture Center for the Arts’ Capitol Theater. But a little more jazz and a little less opera would provide needed balance.

Parker, by age 34 a slave to heroin, alcohol and bad choices, died in a room at New York’s Stanhope Hotel in 1955. His body went unrecognized for 48 hours, giving Schnyder and Wimberly the window they sought to have Parker reflect on his life and attempt to write the serious orchestral work that the jazzman had said he always wanted to produce.

That compositional effort seems to come and go in the program’s first 15 minutes or so, leaving the rest of opera to explore the complex relationship that Parker had with the five women in his life. The list includes “wives” Doris (Angela Mortellaro), Chan (Rachel Sterrenberg) and Rebecca (Krysty Swann), his mother Addie (Angela Brown) and jazz patroness the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswater (Julie Miller). It was in the hotel suite of the baroness that Parker died from a variety of health issues while watching television.

Fellow jazzman Dizzy Gillespie (Will Liverman) and a host of extras fill out the cast. Sixteen members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra under the baton of maestro John DeMain deftly provide the show’s musical backbone.

Schnyder’s score is purely operatic, with jazz influences lightly threaded throughout. Those influence are more nuanced than pronounced; nevertheless, the score retains a fine dramatic fluidity. Wimberley’s libretto presupposes perhaps too much knowledge on the part of the audience, including much of the story itself and the lion’s share of Parker’s background.

The women sing uniformly well, with Angela Brown as Addie Parker delivering a powerhouse performance. These vocal abilities stand in contrast to Stewart’s Parker, whose well-modulated tenor seemed periodically muddled or lost in the show’s overall auditory levels.

By the show’s end we’re happy for the glimpse into Parker’s life. Despite the traditional standing ovation at curtain, a number of audience members said they wished that they’d experienced a lot more.