The music grabbed me from the start. The orchestra rustles with spiraling, jagged arpeggios and frenetic ascending riffs — grounded, just barely, by pedal tones that swell and then disappear. Lyrical fragments try to coalesce into a melodic line, but keep you off guard. The music is so spiked with dissonance, clusters and wayward chords that it seems boldly modernist, even when the harmonies are tonally anchored.
Whitman then begins the prologue, singing in phrases that shift between stentorian declamations and plaintive passages. Mr. Aucoin flawlessly writes vocal lines so that the words come through clearly. The cast and chorus deserve credit in this regard, but the composer made their job easier.
During whole stretches the orchestra almost bonds with the vocal lines, either doubling the voices with instruments or hugging them with chords. Composers like Janácek and Mr. Adès also have this penchant; Mr. Aucoin carries it even further, to dramatic effect.
After the prologue, a ramshackle hospital on the outskirts of Washington comes into view. Wounded young men in tattered clothing occupy about a dozen beds. Whitman has become a nurse, companion and confessor to these vulnerable soldiers.
The numbing routine of the hospital is disrupted when a hotheaded, seriously injured young man bursts in. Whitman is immediately drawn to this needy yet suspicious soldier, who says he is John Wormley from Boston. With a bright, grainy voice and impulsive temperament, the tenor Alexander Lewis conveys the panic and caginess of this haunted-looking character.
Wormley is hiding a secret: He is actually a rebel soldier eager to alert the Confederate forces of his whereabouts. At night, feeling a tangle of emotions — guilt, fear, jealousy, a determination to expose Whitman’s true desires yet a yearning to be loved — Wormley coaxes Whitman into his bed.
Scholars differ about the extent of Whitman’s homosexual feelings and question whether he actually had sex with another man. Mr. Aucoin’s Whitman does, though it’s a complicated encounter. Mr. Aucoin’s work teases out all these emotional layers. This nighttime connection leads to a predictable crisis, with Whitman ashamed for having crossed a boundary and the defensive Wormley denouncing Whitman as a pervert.
There are just two other solo roles: The strong bass-baritone Davóne Tines brings mellow sound and affecting earnestness to Freddie, a runaway slave fighting with Union forces. The radiant soprano Jennifer Zetlan appears in a brief, climactic late scene as a messenger with news that the Union has won the war.
After Whitman’s reconciliation with the dying Wormley, he is left asking, again, “What is it, then, between us?” The chorus joins him, now in contemporary street clothes, a reminder that at a time when America is roiling with division, the question is as pertinent as ever.