Critical Mass: Bernstein’s masterpiece goes beyond politics and religion to humanity, pure and simple.

Bernstein’s Mass
Jubilant Sykes, ASO and Festival Chorus, Kristjan Järvi et al
Adelaide Festival Centre, March 9

It could be a scene from any urban street: the edifice of a dilapidated church looms, imprisoned in scaffolding. Its only adornment, aside from the undeniable splendour of the stained glass windows, is layer upon layer of graffiti on the surrounding parapet (“Atone”, reads one hastily scrawled tag). The structure is in transition, and so are the people who gather outside; some devoted churchgoers, some curious souls who find themselves drawn to the building on a passing fun-run.

So too are we drawn to the eclectic yet utterly poignant world of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. From these humble beginnings an exuberant spectacle emerges, crowding the stage and orchestra pit of the Adelaide Festival Centre to 184 of Bernstein’s required “singers, players and dancers” (other productions have commanded well over 200) . It’s easy to see why this gargantuan theatrical work is seldom staged and has become the domain of arts festivals: apart from its sheer size – it’s almost a festival in itself – it’s a complex work, with spiritual and political themes that must be treated with sensitivity in order to preach to the converted even as it avoids preaching to non-believers.

In the way it spotlights the individual struggles of the congregation, Andy Packer’s staging isn’t too “Goddy” – rather it internalises and personalises the experience of crisis. It’s not just “Do I believe in God, and does he believe in me?” It’s also, “Do I have faith in myself and the life I’m living?” 

Costume design by Geoff Cobham gives colour, variety and depth to the 15-odd street singers who linger outside the church. In one particularly touching scene, The Word of the Lord, they pull up chairs and share their worries with one another and with the audience, somewhere between group therapy and informal powwow. For the most part their singing is satisfyingly versatile and lies towards the music theatre end of the spectrum, revelling in the cheeky humour of Stephen Schwartz’s libretto (“God said that sex should repulse unless it leads to results; And so we crowd the world full of consenting adults.”), though one or two of the tribe garble the text and fail to convince dramatically.

They are most impressive in Bernstein’s ironically raucous, bluesy Dona nobis pacem, railing against the empty promise of that paean to peace and forcefully demanding answers from creator, faith and church (“Give us something or we’ll just start taking!” they warn). Ultimately though, they convey a genuine sense of compassion and community.

But their charismatic Celebrant, the aptly named American Jubilant Sykes, is the star. His riveting journey from inspirational figure to total mad-scene meltdown tears at his priestly garments to reveal a man plagued by demons of self-doubt and terrified of leading his flock astray. The range of moods he creates in both spoken and sung passages – from the velvet-voiced, softly articulated A Simple Song to his full-blooded cri de coeur in the final movements – is the ideal expression of Bernstein’s eclectic, sometimes schizophrenic blend of texts and concepts. After his tirade, he is soothed only by the musical olive branch offered by pure-voiced boy soprano David Linn.

Sykes has ample musical support in the Adelaide Festival Chorus, who segue with ease from the haunting, very un-Bernstein dissonance of the Confession to the finger-clicking swing of Mea culpa. They too take part in the process of questioning ideology, even ripping off their surplices in protest. The children’s choir, though appropriately full of beans, were disciplined even when armed with kazoos, and added youthful zest to the lively Gloria.

I’ve always found the Mass’s rock band corny and dated on disc, but seeing Järvi’s Absolute Trio of drum kit, bass and keyboards onstage brought a new energy and impetus to those upbeat sections and made them sound… Well, cool, in a way I haven’t been able to appreciate until now.

Amplification and balance was problematic, especially in the pre-recorded choral exchanges with the live ones. The opening fugal Kyrie for six voices works well in its spatial conception, each part played through speakers around the hall for a surround sound effect, as if the prayers were offered up from within the audience. But elsewhere the disembodied sound is disconcerting. The live forces though, were in excellent hands with the impossibly hip Kristjan Järvi at the podium. The orchestra was spirited and idiomatic throughout, with only one transcendent reverie in the score impinged on by a painfully out-of-tune double bass solo.

Three dancers, casually clad in track pants and hoodies, are the icing on Bernstein’s layer cake – their fluid and seemingly spontaneous motions have a touch of streetsmarts about them à la Jerome Robbins’ choreography for West Side Story.

Packer links religious and political reflection beautifully in one powerful scene in which the singers fall silent and sit motionless in prayer. Their thoughts and doubts are writ large on the church’s stained glass windows – truly windows to the soul – as they project images of war and violence as confronting now as they were 40 years ago when Bernstein composed Mass.

As a runner, I liked the seeming randomness in this production of the joggers who come across the church and abandon their marathon route to get swept up in an altogether different journey. Though I myself am not likely to wander off track into a church, running does allow time and space to take stock and reflect, occasionally on the big questions in life.

Adelaide Festival’s Mass is a brave production of a brave work that doesn’t shy away from exposing the contradictions and hypocrisy of life with or without religion. It deals with the small-scale alongside the monumental: how can there be greater peace in the world when we can barely rein in the chaos of our own existence? There are no easy answers, but this non-believer was left feeling uplifted by the music and comforted by its message of hope.

Mass is at Adelaide Festival Centre on March 10. Read Limelight’s interview with Jubilant Sykes and director Andy Packer here

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