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Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
October 3, 2017
It’s fair to say that 27-year-old Matthew Aucoin is one of classical music’s fastest rising stars. Admittedly by the time he was Aucoin’s age, Mozart had written Idomeneo and Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but that’s not to strip Aucoin of his wunderkind status – he too was composing age four! But the fact that his opera Crossing is receiving a timely revival as well as its New York premiere is enough to prove that Aucoin is a very hot ticket and a musical voice well worth the listening to.
Rod Gilfry, Alexander Lewis and Company in Crossing. Photo © Richard Termine
The opera, straight through in one act and running at one hour 50 minutes, is ambitious in scale and forces. Calling for four principals, a chorus of 11 men and a chamber orchestra of 26, Aucoin has woven a rich tapestry of words and music around a fictional episode in the life of Walt Whitman, perhaps America’s most ‘operatic’ of poets. Whitman did indeed quit his life as a printer, schoolteacher and reporter in New York to serve as a volunteer nurse for much of the Civil War. His gut-wrenching, blood-soaked experiences in hospitals that frequently resembled charnel houses irrevocably changed both the man and his writing, as witness the poignancy and honesty of poems like The Wound Dresser.
Taking its title from the poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, the opera examines ideas of ‘boundaries’ and of ‘crossing over’ from all kinds of angles at once: the physical and metaphysical soul hovering between life and death, the gulf that can exist between a writer or performer and an audience, and, most importantly, the barriers contained within the conflicting elements of Whitman’s own self-belief and complicated sexuality. Taking words from Whitman’s own diaries and poems, Aucoin has skillfully fashioned a tautly structured libretto that is as grand and glorious as the poet himself.
Whitman, majestically portrayed by baritone Rod Gilfry, appears as narrator, healer and mate (Whitman’s own term) to a ward of maimed and injured Union soldiers somewhere towards the end of the Civil War. Into their tiny community stumbles John Wormley, here compellingly played by Australian tenor Alexander Lewis, a conflicted Confederate deserter with a desperate urge for survival and a fanciful hope that betraying the hospital might lead to his being pardoned. Drawn together emotionally by a need for comfort and a sense of each other’s complexities, Wormley ultimately invites the older man to share his bed, only to turn on him the following day branding him a pervert and a parasite, a predatory paedophile out to “suck young blood”. Whitman is mortified, confessing to having betrayed a sacred trust and crossed a line – another crossing. We the audience have borne witness, but is it abuse? It’s a complex question, and one that stays with you beyond the opera, as it clearly does with the character of Whitman.
Rod Gilfry and Alexander Lewis in Crossing. Photo © Richard Termine
Aucoin’s musical voice is immediate and authoritative. Fundamentally tonal, his palette flickers and shines with delicately flecked woodwinds, orchestral piano and sparkling percussion. His motoric rhythms exhibit dashes of the brand of minimalism espoused by John Adams (although that isn’t a term that Adams embraces), overridden by carefully crafted lyrical lines and long building chordal sequences that really do seem to go somewhere. A delicate colourist, he can conjure stars in a night sky or a river in flood. His word setting is adroit, demanding and frequently inspired. Wormley’s more melismatic lines, signifying duplicity and pain by turns, are tellingly juxtaposed with Whitman’s steadier lyricism, bolstered by the poet’s sense of optimism and greater security. Both main roles stretch their singers – Whitman shifts occasionally into Heldenbaritone territory, while Wormley has his stratospheric moments and plenty of tricky intervals – but Aucoin clearly cares for and understands singers so has tailored his demands accordingly.
Diane Paulus’s staging for American Repertory Theater is assured and admirably clear, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of a hospital ward that can turn from hurly burly to lights out in minutes. The addition of four dancers heighten key moments thanks to Jill Johnson's effective and unobtrusive choreography. David Zinn’s costumes ooze authenticity, while Tom Pye’s unfussy set and naturalistic hospital walls are deftly enhanced by Jennifer Tipton’s sensitive and detailed lighting design. Finn Ross’s subtle and enhancing projections are beautifully layered on top – try the flooding river and fluttering Stars and Stripes that backdrop Whitman’s bravura aria Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face! (the opening lines of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry).
Performances are faultless. Gilfry is commanding as Whitman, part Old Testament prophet, part homeopathic guru. He establishes audience rapport early on with his compelling “What is it then between us? What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?” and that fundamental warmth elucidates the bond that clearly exists between the poet-turned-nurse and his charges (not all young, in this production). His voice contains equal part granite and honey, rising to some ringing top notes, yet scaling down beautifully to match Wormley’s necessarily more fragile instrument in duet.
The Company in Crossing. Photo © Richard Termine
Lewis masters all of Aucoin’s demands with a deceptive ease. His essentially light voice has a penetrating power when called for and his crystaline diction cuts through regardless of tessitura. There’s much beauty to the tone as well, whether singing a plangent lament or a hectoring outburst. It’s not just a pretty voice either, his bewildered, hollow-eyed Wormley draws you in to a finely graded portrayal full of temperamental nuance. Guileful and beguiling by turns, Lewis’s Wormley is both wise to Whitman’s grace and goodness, and aware of how to exploit his altruism. The moments of tenderness between the two men are equally powerful, and touchingly played by both.
Bass baritone Davone Tines as Freddie Stowers, an ex-slave run away to join the Union, sings with a quiet dignity and a rich lyrical depth, his powerful wailing summoning up a more modern concept of PTSD. Jennifer Zetlan comes as a bolt from the blue as the sole female, her clean, clear soprano delivering the slightly pat news of the end of the War. The 11-voiced male ensemble get some of Aucoin’s most lyrical utterances and some of Whitman’s most beautiful texts and convey them with a disarming directness while holding the line as wounded men in varying degrees of agony. As you would expect, Aucoin conducts the chamber orchestra A Far Cry with distinction and authority, ensuring his music and Whitman’s words come over loud and clear. Although the opera was surtitled, this was a rare case of contemporary opera that probably didn’t need it.
Crossing isn’t perfect. It has the odd dramaturgical lurch, and at 10 minutes shy of two hours it feels a quarter of an hour too long, a fact you become aware of when you find it occasionally retreading the same ground. It is, however, an ambitious new work that teems with ideas and showcases a bright new musical voice. Conveying a rite of passage for Whitman himself as well as a timely reminder of where society could too easily be headed, in Paulus, Gilfry and Lewis’s hands, Crossing deserves to be seen.
Crossing is part of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival and plays until October 8.