BWW Review: CROSSING at Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts
On May 25, 2018, Los Angeles Opera presented a concert version of Matthew Aucoin's third opera, CROSSING. This work was first seen in Boston in June of 2015. Its story deals with Walt Whitman's stint as a volunteer at a Civil War military hospital near Washington DC. In 1862, he went to that site because his brother, George, lay wounded there after the Battle of Fredericksburg,
When he lived in New York, Whitman had been a well known fan of Bel Canto, and later in life he said that he could never have written LEAVES OF GRASS had it not been for opera. According to the poet, dramatic overtures, passionate arias, and even recitatives, influenced his free-verse poetic style. From the middle 1840s on, whenever opera companies from Europe, Havana, or New Orleans appeared in the New York theaters, Whitman was present.
In 2013, Aucoin began to repay the poetic debt to opera with Three Whitman Songs for baritone, four cellos, and piano. Thus, the subject of his 2015 music drama did not come as a big surprise. The title comes from Whitman's poem, CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY, in which he questions what comes between us and what connects us. Having lived in Brooklyn with the view of Manhattan across the water for some years, I felt a personal connection to Aucoin's opening sound picture.
As the story unfolded, Whitman was too old to join the military so he volunteered to nurse the wounded. He worked in a poorly supplied Union hospital with no doctors while the war raged on and patients had little hope for a better life. Whitman sensed that a patient named John Wormley needed both mental and physical help and he tried to provide it.
What he did not know was that Wormley, unlike the other soldiers in that hospital, was a disgraced Confederate soldier. Wormley used Whitman's good intentions to involve him in a scheme calling for a Confederate attack on the defenseless facility. While Wormley called for Rebel vengeance, Whitman fell in love with this evil man who would never return his affection.
As Whitman, veteran baritone Rod Gilfrey gave a searing performance that made everyone in the theater think about wars and their cost to those who fight them. His dramatic declamation was magnificent and his diction was always understandable. Although CROSSING is more verismo than Bel Canto, it is elemental opera and America's great nineteenth century poet might well have enjoyed hearing it.
The cast consists of two main characters, Whitman and Wormley, sung by Gilfry and tenor Brenton Ryan. The lesser characters of Freddie Stowers and The Messenger were sung by velvet-voiced bass-baritone Davóne Tines and silver-voiced soprano Liv Redpath. As the one woman in this cast, she brought a bit of color to the otherwise monochromatic group.
The role of the traitorous Wormley was long and sometimes high, but Brenton Ryan never tired and he made most of it sound easy. Stowers was an escaped slave who volunteered to fight for the Union and some of his music was reminiscent of nineteenth century SPIRITUALS. Redpath's part required her to sing some difficult coloratura that reminded me of the Forest Bird's music in Wagner's SIEGFRIED. Both Tines and Redpath are fine singers to watch in the future.
Tenor Joshua Wheeker, along with baritones Theo Hoffman and Juan Carlos Heredia, sang their solo parts valiantly while ten other male singers made up a very strong chorus. Aucoin, like Jennifer Higdon whose COLD MOUNTAIN also tells of the Civil War, writes great music for chorus. Some of it is likely to be excerpted from the complete opera for concert use.
Aucoin, who wrote both the score and the libretto for this opera, used Whitman's SONG OF MYSELF and WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOM'D as well as CROSSING BROOKLYN FERRY. He also quoted from Federico García Lorca's ODE TO Walt Whitman.
Conducting his opera, Aucoin led a moderate sized orchestra made up of Los Angeles Opera players. A Renaissance man who can conduct traditional opera as well as more modern fare, he was fascinating to watch as he employed steady, sometimes brisk, tempi while cueing various instruments. His knowledge of the uses to which percussion instruments can be put was a lesson in itself. I also loved his woodwind ostinatos and his shimmering bell sounds.
This was a concert performance and not even semi-staged, but Aucoin's text and music were so dramatic that the audience had no trouble understanding the story. However, when a new piece has only two performances and sells them out, it's time to think about bringing it back as a staged work when time and finances allow. Aucoin and Whitman are a wonderful combination and CROSSING is an opera that deserves to be seen and heard more than once in Los Angeles.