BWW Review: Aucoin's CROSSING at BAM's New Wave Festival Hears America Singing and Crying
I wouldn't exactly call Matt Aucoin, 27, a show-off, even though he wrote the music and libretto for THE CROSSING--his 2015 opera having its NY debut at BAM's Next Wave Festival this past week--and conducted the performance as well. (He left the subtle, fine direction to Diane Paulus, who originally mounted it at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, where it was commissioned for the National Civil War Project.) But I would say he's remarkably (and justifiably) confident.
Well constructed and frequently astoundingly moving, the score encompasses a variety of styles and is never less than compelling and is often much more so. Lasting about an hour and three quarters without an intermission, it cohesively covers a difficult period in American history--a different civil war than the one we're currently facing--as well as in the life of poet Walt Whitman.
Whitman (the wonderful baritone Rod Gilfry, hidden behind a Gabby Hayes beard) is more than just a poet/observer and sensitive soul volunteering in a makeshift, ramshackle hospital where there's no real medical care and great need for it. He's also a gay man who becomes involved--not wisely or well--with the other main character, a wounded Confederate deserter/turncoat named John Wormley (the heady tenor Alexander Lewis, filled with anguish and deceit).
Aucoin's libretto is drawn (though not exclusively) from Whitman's poetry, including the poet's first and last lines of the piece, "What is it, then, between us?" which can be taken is a variety of ways, from the factions in the war to the treachery of Wormley. While the libretto is complex, the articulation of the cast made the supertitles almost unnecessary--practically unheard of, even when a work is I English.
The characters of Whitman and Wormley are so intrinsic to the story, so important to its action that one might be tempted to call CROSSING a two-man show. Yet, much of the best, richest music didn't go to them. Aucoin's musical vocabulary, frequently lyrical but not overwhelmingly so, was at its best in the ensembles--a chorus of 11 men, four dancers--as well as in the music from soprano Jennifer Zetlan as a messenger and, particularly, bass-baritone Davone Tines as Freddie Stowers. Stowers is an escaped slave who joined the Union forces and delivers a dizzyingly gorgeous aria about his flight to freedom that stuns Whitman as much as it does the audience.
We know that Aucoin has broad interests in finding ways for his score to put across the emotions of his characters, but I wished that Gilfry's music was less declamatory--less conversational--and more melodic (at least in some places) as Aucoin was elsewhere in the score. Nevertheless, he was a marvel of compassion and authority, taking in the sadness and cruelty of his environment and trying to do what he could to ease the suffering of the injured. (Was Aucoin showing that the words were more important to the man than the music?)
Paulus and her design team--Tom Pye (sets), Jennifer Tipton (lighting), David Zinn (costumes), Sam Lerner (sound design) and, particularly, Finn Ross (projections)--plus the choreography by Jill Johnson were able to show the desperate conditions of the "hospital" without losing the poetic allusions of Whitman. Aucoin, who obviously knows every corner of his score, brought out an elegant, yet sometimes fearsome, performance from the ensemble, A Far Cry, which has worked on the piece since its premiere at ART.
CROSSING was written before the current dire political climate, making Aucoin seem a sort of oracle. I'm not sure I want to know what he knows about what lies ahead.
The final performances of CROSSING at BAM's New Wave Festival are on October 7 at 7:30 pm and October 8 at 3 pm, at the BAM Gilman Opera House.