Aucoin’s ‘Crossing’ Captures Whitman In Civil Love, War

Matthew Aucoin’s ‘Crossing’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is set barn-like field hospital designed by Tom Pye.
(Photos by Richard Termine)
By James L. Paulk

NEW YORK — Matthew Aucoin’s opera Crossing was given a major production in Boston two years ago by the American Repertory Theater, directed by Diane Paulus. That production, along with the original cast, chorus, and orchestra, came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival for four performances, starting Oct. 3.

Given flowing hair and a beard, baritone Rod Gilfry resembles historic Whitman photos.

The music world loves a prodigy, and the 27-year-old Aucoin has for several years been treated with fawning profiles and feature stories worthy of the second coming of Mozart, or at least Leonard Bernstein. At age 11 he performed on the piano a transcription of Mozart’s entire The Marriage of Figaro from memory. Talented on the podium, he has worked as an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. And, in a coup worthy of Bernstein, he replaced an ailing Pierre Boulez to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He has been commissioned by the Met and by Lyric Opera of Chicago. Like Wagner, he wrote his own libretto for Crossing. And, of course, he conducted.

Inspired by the Civil War diaries of Walt Whitman, Crossing takes place in a hospital for Union soldiers where Whitman volunteers, his duties resembling those of a candy striper. The opera imagines a one-night stand between Whitman and John Wormley, a young soldier who turns out to be a disguised Confederate deserter and aspiring spy. Whitman’s ensuing guilt (“I crossed a sacred boundary”) and Wormley’s bitter recriminations (“you’re only here to suck young blood”) are eventually resolved as Wormley dies in Whitman’s arms (“Oh my son, I never loved another ‘til you”).

Wormley is actually mentioned in Whitman’s diary, where we learn of his “large clear dark-brown eyes, very fine,” with the added note that when he asked for “clean underclothes” and “to wash himself well… I had the great pleasure of helping him to accomplish all those wholesome designs.” Whitman is assumed by most scholars to have been homosexual or bisexual, partly because of what seem to be coded messages like this one, but the evidence is not conclusive.

The story is a fantasy. Still, it could have been spun into a nice little neo-verismo opera: soapy and a bit shocking, with a satisfying resolution. But Aucoin has gone for something much more profound, using extended choral passages to quote at length from Whitman’s poetry, as do each of his four soloists, and with ponderous dance scenes.

Whitman (Gilfry) comforts the dying Confederate deserter Wormley (Alexander Lewis).

The result is mixed. The poetic text gives Aucoin the opportunity to show off his chops, and he delivers with some sensuously beautiful music for everyone. The orchestra proceeds with a shimmering, richly textured minimalism that echoes John Adams and Philip Glass. This sound is especially effective in the interludes, but it is also the basis for the often intricate counterpoint to the simple, elegant vocal line. The music for the 11-man chorus is especially elaborate, with lots of solo parts. Yet the effect is often weighty and sometimes overwrought. It all unfolds quite slowly, with little relief, and the opera seems to go on much longer than its actual length of 100 minutes.

Casting Rod Gilfry as Whitman was a stroke of genius. Costumed with flowing hair and a beard, he looks remarkably similar to Whitman’s photographs. His powerful baritone gives just the right weight and cadence to each word. With his piercing eyes and consummate stage presence, he somehow makes the contemporary audience understand the appeal of the poet. (Gilfry will perform Crossing with Aucoin again later in the season, at a single concert performance May 26, under the auspices of LA Opera Off Grand, the company’s non-mainstage initiative.)

Tenor Alexander Lewis portrayed Wormley with a mix of smarminess and fervent anger. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines sang with richness and power in the role of Freddie Stowers, an escaped slave who had fought with the Union army. Jennifer Zetlan, as the Messenger, sang with a high soprano that contrasted nicely with sound of the otherwise all-male ensemble.

The 35-piece orchestra, A Far Cry, seemed much larger. It normally “conducts itself,” but here Aucoin drew nicely detailed textures with fine balances, rarely stepping on his singers.

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan, as the Messenger, is the lone female in the cast.

Paulus set the entire opera in a barn-like field hospital, designed by Tom Pye and effectively lit by Jennifer Tipton. But a series of dance scenes were intrusive and awkward, with the dancers bouncing between the hospital beds.

Crossing opens with Whitman addressing the audience, quoting from his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

What is it, then, between us?
You, whoever you are,
Twenty feet away
Or generations hence –
Where is it that we meet?
And what keeps us apart?
For I am sure
I have sat where you sit,
Looked upward as you look –
Have felt the thrill
Of darkness descending –
Have breathed the air you breathe.

BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, a gorgeous Beaux-Arts temple of opera, didn’t open until 1908, so Whitman didn’t quite sit in the same seats as the audience. But he edited a daily newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle, whose office (now a Starbucks) was a brisk stroll from these seats. He even campaigned for the construction of Fort Greene Park, a block away. At its best, Crossing brings the essence of Whitman to the audience, “generations hence,” and we breathe the same air as this strange, iconic, mesmerizing figure.

For tickets and further information, go to BAM.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.

Davóne Tines sang the role of Freddie Stowers, an escaped slave who had fought with the Union army.