“What a night, what a sight for sore eyes,” Parker croons at the opening of Daniel Schnyder’s opera about the American jazz hero. Parker’s first soliloquy reflecting on his death the evening before opens up the opera almost instantly to intrigue and mystery. Revival director Amanda Consol has faithfully followed the lead of Ron Daniels in this genre-bending, time-hopping and at times almost impenetrable production.

Lawrence Brownlee (Charlie Parker)
© Richard Hubert Smith

First performed in Philadelphia in 2015, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird has transferred to London in a co-production between the English National Opera and Hackney Empire, marking its European première. Lawrence Brownlee, Schnyder alludes, was part of the inspiration for the opera itself, and it’s not hard to see why: scatting and improvising with as much ease as he soared over the sonorous lyrical lines, Brownlee, normally known for his Rossini roles, was on outstanding form.

Charlie Parker is dead: a corpse, feet eerily uncovered, sets the stage before even a note is played.  When Brownlee first appears, it’s uncertain whether he is a ghost, an apparition, or not yet dead, made more confusing by the way that the women around him react; sometimes acknowledging his presence, at other times unaware as he sits in his Birdland club. Parker can’t rest easy, as he hasn’t yet completed the great symphonic work that never came to fruition during his short and troubled life. But even in death he isn’t left in peace: visited by the various and numerous women in his life, from his patron Baroness de Koenigswarter (Julie Miller), his three wives and his mother (Angela Brown), the music takes a back seat as Parker is drawn into reminiscing.

Transcribing this symphony was never going to be an easy task for a man who has become synonymous with improvisation, and the frustration grows: “Come on music, stand still. Freeze” Parker exclaims. But it never does. Again and again Parker’s life and memories get in the way of his music, as his addiction and troubled relationships came to have such an influence on the great saxophonist. Bridgette A Wimberley has a hard job adding words to many of the sections; Parker’s erratic nature means that he jumps from idea to idea. Often moments feel parodied, for example when Parker’s second wife Chan (Rachel Sterrenberg) gushes, “I love music, so I asked who is that cat called bird?”. Contrived, perhaps – but moving in equal measure. “I’m a jazzman,” admits the Yardbird himself elsewhere in the opera, “I’m blowing all my pain out through my horn”.

Lawrence Brownlee, Elena Perroni and ensemble
© Richard Hubert Smith

The most powerful scene, however, dispenses with words altogether. After Chan confronts Charlie (“Pree is dead”), Parker is assailed with sounds, sirens, and women’s threatening voices. Overcome, he is straightjacketed and helped onto a stool, where he stares out, looking lost and almost accusingly at the audience, in front of a line of blank-faced fellow patients. Dissonant lines and broken snippets of melody precede the arrival of Doris (Elena Perroni) who, almost echoing her earlier supplication to Charlie – “let music be your prayer” – falls on her knees in a beautiful, haunting vocalise.

“At first glance, Opera and Bebop, the music Parker invented, are worlds apart” admits Schnyder, and there are limitations. Wisely, the composer, who is also a saxophonist, drew short of completely mimicking Parker’s music by instead incorporating short Parker riffs and motifs. The jazzman’s music shines through in some ways, but is so subtle on occasion that his genius is not always made the most of. Some of the more bluesy numbers, however, are hard-hitting and energetic – Angela Brown, as Charlie’s expressive mother Addie, has a deep richness that complements her at times overbearing presence in Parker’s life.

Derek Campbell and Lawrence Brownlee
© Richard Hubert Smith

It’s not that Schnyder and Wimberley don’t touch upon Parker’s occasionally harrowing past – his incarceration in Camarillo State Hospital is thorough and bleak – but they arguably gloss over the extent of his heroin addiction and the severity of his breakdown at the time. Parker is portrayed more often as affable and energetic: his duet with Dizzy Gillespie (Will Liverman) is almost off West End in its enthusiasm – “You are the be be be, I am the bo bo bop” – and his final ode to the saxophone, after which he is reduced to silence while the women argue over his body, is a heartfelt love song without much hint of farewell. Even in the depiction of his many failed relationships, Parker feels more like a naughty schoolboy than self-destructive jazzman.

All three wives are compelling in their own way: Chrystal E Williamsr is delightfully dismal and bitter as Parker’s scorned first love, and both Elena Perroni and Rachel Sterrenberg are equally stirring and resentful. It is Brownlee, though, who far eclipses all other efforts. Hugely energetic, versatile and compelling, he does enormous credit to the groundbreaking saxophonist.

If the women’s farewell begins to feel a little overdone and even trite, this is countered by Parker’s own goodbye with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classic poem Sympathy. Strong activist notes abound throughout: “It ain’t easy” sings Addie, “to be a mother to a black man child all alone”, and Parker continually criticises the limitations forced on him by his colour, even likening it to his music, “Black notes on white paper, caged behind bars”. But it is his final salute that is the most powerful. “I know why the caged bird sings” Parker declares, briefcase packed, unfinished symphony put away to remain forever unfinished, having finally accepted that his life’s work is enough: “This man is free”.