The cast of The Crossing. Photo by Richard Termine.
For all its promise, Matthew Aucoin’s opera The Crossing is not more than the sum of its parts. This opera is largely derived from and based on the Civil War poetry and letters of Walt Whitman; it premiered at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA in 2015 and had its New York premiere on Thursday. The Crossing does make you question what you want and expect in your operatic entertainment, which is precisely one of the points of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.
The Crossing is an ambitious musical and dramatic work that seems to be caught in an identity crisis. It’s not such a bad time to be having an identity crisis over the American Civil War – as they say, life imitates art and art imitates life. While the current debates primarily concern Confederacy-related monuments and what people read into them, the heart of The Crossing – indeed, the heart of one of its lead protagonists – seems to be in taking issue with the glamorization of the Union cause.
The opera’s interface with Walt Whitman (a stentorian Rod Gilfry) and Confederate deserter John Wormley (tenor Alexander Lewis) are where things start to get muddled. Much of the libretto is drawn from Whitman’s poetry, just as the title of the opera comes from his poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. The texts chosen for the Whitman character illustrate a sort of Messianic self-portrayal mixed with homoeroticism, the intended impact of which is ultimately…unclear. At different points, Whitman’s interactions with the wounded soldiers can be perceived as downright creepy and predatory, which is a very different outcome than the anti-war focus seems intended to convey. To a certain extent, this confusion reflects the complex intertwining found in Whitman’s poetry, but in dramatic terms the work is wanting in clarity.
One of the reasons for this lack of clarity is the opera’s muddled chronology. The staging by Diane Paulus incorporates a number of beautiful and elegantly integrated projections by Finn Ross, which seem to depict a core set of events over three days and two nights. Events mentioned in the dialogue, however, would only make sense over a period of approximately three years. Also jarring are a number of historical inaccuracies, including a vastly inflated death toll for the Battle of Chickamauga and a central plot thread about Wormley conspiring to commit a hospital massacre. (The presumed historical basis is a set of apocryphal events alleged to have occurred after the Battle of Saltville, which are no longer considered credible by most historians.)
As Whitman, Rod Gilfry reprised his role from the opera’s 2015 world premiere. Gilfry’s performance was powerful, alternately commanding and gentle as he carried the main narrative of the opera. His on-stage opposite, Alexander Lewis, played Confederate deserter John Wormley. Wormley’s character is self-hating and immediately unlikeable, rather like the titular character in Owen Wingrave; if there’s a moral to this opera, it would presumably be that divine compassion can forgive anything. At the climax of the opera, Lewis gives a tour-de-force performance as the dying Wormley, with vivid physicality and evocative singing.
The most powerful and interesting episode in the opera is an aria sung by bass-baritone Davone Tines. Tines plays Freddie Stowers, a fugitive slave-turned soldier who sings of a vision of machines of death. The music is interesting, coherent, powerful, and dramatic, full of fire; Stowers’ performance is riveting and thrilling, his voice lustrous and full. This aria, “I had lost all hope”, seems destined for a future beyond the entirety of this opera; if there was ever a moment for an encore, it was after Stowers finished his powerful and moving performance.
The opera itself was sprinkled with dances choreographed by Jill Johnson; these added a certain variation and lighter-hearted entertainment, but (like other elements) sat on an unclear boundary between the wounded veterans’ internal and external worlds. This psychological muddle has consequences: by the time soprano Jennifer Zetlan arrives to announce the end of the war, it’s anyone’s guess why the wounded veterans (and Zetlan’s messenger) seem more depressed than anything by the news.
The Crossing is a bit rough around the edges; like war, it’s rarely clean. But “I had lost all hope” should certainly be heard more.