Walt Whitman heard America singing. Carpenter, boatman, mother, washerwoman. Young fellows “Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”
In Matthew Aucoin’s troublingly perceptive opera, “Crossing,” which was given its West Coast premiere this weekend at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the young fellows are not strong, the melodious voice is melancholic and Whitman’s own. The great poet has volunteered to give solace to the wounded and dying in Civil War hospitals.
Taking his inspiration from Whitman’s journals, Acouin imagines the poet’s humanitarian mindfulness as a kind of Dante-esque descent into a hellish morass of suffering where there can only be a pittance of healing. Could the sexual attraction of helpless young men have something to do with his motivation? What happens if Whitman actually falls in love with a young soldier, and what if that young soldier in a Union hospital happens to be a Rebel in disguise, who attempts to employ an unwitting Whitman into helping transmit coded intelligence?
On the surface, “Crossing” is a sad and powerful almost traditional operatic love story. On a deeper level, and the level in which it functions most effectively, it is a sad and powerful anti-war statement.
This is the opera that made Aucoin an overnight sensation when it had its premiere in Boston three years ago. The composer – also a poet, himself, as well as the opera’s librettist and conductor – was 25 when he completed the score. An international press took notice.
Everyone, it seemed, was taking notice of Aucoin. He had already been the subject of a major New York Times Sunday magazine profile, “Opera’s Great 25-Year-Old Hope.” The Metropolitan Opera, where he was an impossibly young assistant conductor, wanted a new opera from Aucoin. The Brooklyn Academy of Music imported the “Crossing” production to its 2017 Next Wave Festival. The Los Angeles Philharmonic made Aucoin a Dudamel conducting fellow.
Most important of all, the Los Angeles Opera, which co-produced the Wallis concert performance of “Crossing” as part of its Off Grand series, made Aucoin its first artist in residence, and it, too, has commissioned an opera from him.
Still it is only now, nearing the end of the second season of Aucoin’s three-year residency with the company, and only with “Crossing,” are we finally finding out what all the fuss is about. Aucoin’s L.A. Phil tenure came and went without public notice. Thus far, Aucoin’s public face with the company had mainly been as an effortful conductor of “Akhnaten” last season and a somewhat more nuanced conductor of the company’s current production of “Rigoletto.”
“Crossing,” which is a young man’s work in both its impressive over-insistence and just plain over-insistence -- is the real indication, as librettist and composer, of where Aucoin’s talents lie. In the way only opera can, he both captures and invents Whitman.
Indeed, what are Whitman’s words and Aucoin’s can be hard to distinguish. Whether fact and fancy, the intersection of Whitman’s grandeur, grandiosity and tenderness is similarly believable.
Aucoin created Whitman for Rod Gilfry, a regular with L.A. Opera from its first season in 1986. But despite his 28 roles sung at the Music Center, the baritone’s important recent work has been elsewhere, such as starring in Messiaen’s “Saint-Francois d’Assise” in Amsterdam or in Brett Dean’s “Hamlet” at Glyndebourne last summer.
Dressed in a suit with pink tie, pocket handkerchief and sporting long hair, Gilfry seemed a kind of oily Elmer Gantry, further oiled by Aucoin’s busily ingratiating chamber orchestra accompaniment. There is always something, and usually a lot, burbling under the surface in the orchestra, with influences of the clamorous sides of John Adams and Philip Glass. Meanwhile, Whitman’s vocal lines can convey an effusive lyricism as well as turn poignantly intimate.
That unsettling tension between orchestra and voice creates an affecting uncertainty, and Gilfry seemed alert to every dramatic Whitmanesque option. He honored Aucoin’s and Whitman’s words, making the projected titles all but unnecessary and giving subtle credence to both the inner resonance of a lyric and its immediacy. Every vivid gesture vocally, facially and theatrical meant something.
As the wounded soldier, John Wormley, with whom Whitman has an affair in the opera (he is mentioned only in passing in Whitman’s diaries), tenor Brenton Ryan, who has had a series of small roles with L.A. Opera, offered a grippingly strong characterization of an angry, lost young man. After Wormley allows himself to be seduced by the old poet, repugnance turns to fury and finally, wrenchingly, to love.
There is also a small part for an escaped slave, Freddie Stowers, sung with spellbinding intensity by Davóne Tines. The only female voice is that of a messenger who brings the news of peace. Liv Redpath soared above the male principals and a male chamber chorus like an alien creature from planet Puccini.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of “Crossing” is how Aucoin captures the shell-shocked mood of victory. The soldiers are simply too weak and emotionally devastated to absorb the meaning of this peace. The consequences of war are sorrow and self-searching.
At the end, though, Aucoin succumbs to romanticizing, not quite trusting what he has already created. A duet between the dying Wormley and Whitman leads to an apotheosis. “Nothing is final,” the men of the chorus pour forth. “No men shall see the end,” they sing, stamping out each word with utter finality. This leaves Whitman to morosely mourn, “I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
This is the one moment of empty bathos. The staying power of “Crossing” is not our hearing Whitman singing — we’ve heard that before — but hearing Whitman hearing America singing. It is through him that we may learn to listen at a time when listening to America singing is becoming a lost art.