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Matthew Aucoin, Diane Paulus and Rod Gilfry Bring Walt Whitman to Life in ‘Crossing’ at BAM

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, October 6, 2017

Contemporary opera can be a tough sell in today’s world, if tonight’s fitful audience at BAM is any indication. But wünderkind Matthew Aucoin, who wrote and composed Crossing at the age of twenty-five, and conducted this performance, is appreciating undeniable success as a modern practitioner of the art. His youthful opus given such a first-rate production is proof.

Masterfully directed by Diane Paulus, with a deceptively simple set enhanced by subtle projections and evocative lighting, the piece is inspired by great American poet Walt Whitman’s experiences as a volunteer in Civil War hospitals.

Rod Gilfry and Alexander Lewis in ‘Crossing’ by Matthew Aucoin at Brooklyn Academy of Music; photo: Richard Termine.

This setting, in which the warmly empathetic baritone Rod Gilfry is the grey bearded Whitman, serves as a springboard from which Aucoin interprets Whitman’s ideology and examines broad and eerily current themes such as the human cost of war. The story centers on a Confederate soldier, portrayed superbly by a rangy Alexander Lewis, who infiltrates the Union hospital under the name John Wormley and creates the piece’s source of conflict.

The score is a hodgepodge of compositional styles that at best, could be described as eclectic, but to this ear, lacks cohesion. The piece begins with a sound reminiscent of John Adams, the post-minimalist composer of operas including the classic Nixon in China, and quickly veers to incorporate recitative in the manner of Italian-American post-verismo Gian Carlo Menotti (Amahl and the Night Visitors was a Christmas treasure). Later, but just as easily,  Aucoin slips into hymn-like triadic choruses, and at one point, African-American spiritual, in an unpredictable, ultimately stunning aria sung by bass-baritone Davóne Tines, in the role of Freddie Stowers, a former salve from the south.

Rod Gilfry with Ensemble in ‘Crossing’ by Matthew Aucoin at Brooklyn Academy of Music; photo: Richard Termine.

Aucoin grabs from an all-emcompassing storehouse of musical references, but his sense of theatre is more limited. When the all-male chorus (representing the wounded soldiers in the ramshackle hospital) sings, it is always en masse (“He’s back! He’s back! Stowers is back!” in unison), seemingly reaching for a heightened stylization à la Philip Glass and Adams, but often hemmed into an incongruously prosaic harmonic world. The characters at times seemed to be existing in slow motion, moving slowly from one syllable to the next, while the orchestra burbled busily underneath.
The evening’s most tender moment, when Whitman slips into Wormley’s bed, was a splendid moment of repose. The climax of the story, when the evening’s only female singer, a radiant Jennifer Zetlan, uses theatrical time to better effect in depicting the ennui upon learning of the terrible war’s end. “We are the cost / We are the money / Spent to fight this war” the listless chorus responds.

Rod Gilfry and Alexander Lewis in ‘Crossing’ by Matthew Aucoin at Brooklyn Academy of Music; photo: Richard Termine.

The opera’s two acts are performed without intermission, but nonetheless, the libretto’s structure is weighed down by ponderous philosophizing. But thanks to Diane Paulus’s expert stage direction, Aucoin’s concept and characters are compelling. The choreography by Jill Johnson, unexpected and delightfully jarring, is employed with a judicious eye, and the accompanying chamber orchestra, A Far Cry, a Grammy-nominated ensemble from Boston responded to the composer’s baton with great skill.
The emotional world of Crossing is aided by Paulus’s stage pictures, and the deeply invested, penetrating performances. Aucoin most fully melded music and theatre in Wormley’s final aria, when Whitman shows forgiveness and grace and coaxes the troubled young man to find grace in dying, and the shimmering instrumental music that began the evening returns, and Wormley’s moving words are given a natural prosody.
Admirable in its ambitions, and moving in its poetry, Crossing emerges as a timely creation by a promising young artist, and it will be exciting to see what he produces next.
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Crossing at Brooklyn Academy of Music through October 8, composed, written and conducted by Matthew Aucoin. Directed by Diane Paulus with choreography by Jil Johnson, set design by Tom Pye, costume design by David Zinn, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, projection design by Fin Ross and with Chamber Orchestra A Far Cry. With Rod Gilfrey (Walt Whitman), Alexander Lewis (John Wormley) and Davóne Tines (Freddie Stowers) and Jennifer Zetlan (Messenger).

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