When the Kennedy Center started producing a new version of Leonard Bernstein's Mass for its 10th anniversary, the immediate concern for most involved, including the composer, was that Mass would have lost steam since it was first produced at the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971. Would the shock effects, seemingly hot off the television screens, that Bernstein derived from the protest movements then riding so high have lost their punch, much like the causes themselves, in this more complacent time?
But it was emphatically clear at the opening Saturday night of the new Mass, almost 10 years to the day of when the piece opened the center, that the answer to this question is an almost unanimous "No." Mass is no worse for wear than Verdi's Requiem after the resolution of Italian nationalism or Beethoven's drum and brass fanfares in the Missa Solemnis after Napoleon.
The new production was considerably more satisfying than the original. The sense of visual hubbub that made the earlier one seem confusing and busy was greatly reduced, and the focus of the work was clearer. In fact, but for a disaster in the complex audio system Saturday night that might have brought down the curtain on a less prestigious work, one would have been able to say that at long last Mass has been done the way it deserves.
Like all musical settings of the mass, Bernstein's work is essentially plotless. It has the organizational sequence roughly common to all such works -- from the Kyrie to the Agnus Dei. Thus an emotional sequence moving from celebration to crisis to catharsis is set off. But Bernstein correctly senses that in this secular, catastrophe-prone age the basically optimistic message of the traditional Catholic mass is as hard for some to accept as is the 19th-century practice of ending a symphony on a triumphant note.
Instead, he builds around the segments of the mass a bare-bones dramatic version of the fundamental birth, death and renewal motif. The Celebrant, a priest, leads his diverse flock of contemporary beings through the mass, and the faith of the believers is progressively buffeted by alien pressures and ideas, reflected in the enormous array of rock, blues, pop and whatever they perform as the drama develops. Members of the flock fall out, and finally the Celebrant collapses as well. The only hope to be derived from this situation, then, is that of renewal through a new Celebrant, which seems to be the point of the boy soprano who returns at the end to the haunting "A Simple Song" with which the Celebrant begins the work.
If Bernstein's scenario seems grim, that is precisely his message: that there isn't a great deal of hope left. As he wrote 10 years ago, "the intention of Mass is to communicate as directly and universally as I can a reaffirmation of faith."
Mass itself is a very complex work -- one that has proved to be especially difficult to fathom for listeners who do not know the Roman Catholic mass. They are left without the primary liturgical and historical reference point.
In an effort to compensate for this, director Tom O'Horgan ("Hair" and "Jesus Christ Superstar") has organized the forces of about 250 performers in a way meant to emphasize the music above all. The greatest strength of Mass is in its music, and it is there also that it is the most accessible. The multi-level set gets deliberately lost behind the crowd. The streamlined scenic dimensions of the original production are missing. Also those milling crowds that looked a bit like an airport on Christmas Eve before are now tightly focused with tighter groupings and disciplined use of light and darkness.
O'Horgan's most important contribution to the music is one of his simplest and most radical changes. He pulls the orchestra out of the pit and places it on the level of the front rows of the audience. Thus it becomes very much a part of the visual display.
With as many of the geometrical lines of the set constructed diagonally to the audience, and with processionals and recessionals up and down aisles, viewers are made to feel enveloped in the experience much as they would in a church.
But with all these strengths, Mass' opening night teetered paradoxically on the edge of disaster. As the evening progressed, the giant sound amplification system seemed hellbent on ruining the show. People close to the show said that so far it has malfunctioned every time.
On Saturday night, the effect was insidious. Starting a little more than halfway through, the system persistently, and successfully, wrecked the debut of Joseph Kolinski as the Celebrant. Kolinski had opened the evening with as enchanting a rendering of "A Simple Song" as you could expect to hear. He has a smooth and rich low voice; he has an especially magnetic physical and acting presence, and his flexible but precise way with the metrics of a piece of music is more in the tradition of Broadway than opera.
But in the Epistle, "The Word of the Lord," which is one of the finest inspirations of Bernstein and his partner, Stephen Schwartz (who helped with the book), it sounded for a moment like Kolinski's voice was beginning to break. Those rich low tones, in particular, were gone, and it sounded like he was singing from under the stage. Then, as he moved closer, it became clear what was wrong. Every time he moved his head down, the body mike malfunctioned, the tone all but died, and only his breathing was being amplified. And in fact, when he sang the Lord's Prayer, it sounded like he was choking on gravel. His mad scene, the climax of Mass, was mostly a distracting combination of heavy breathing and tones distorted by added overtones.
As Mass continued, the electronic plague spread to other singers. What should have been an illumination was turned into an ordeal.
If Bernstein, or producer Roger L. Stevens, or conductor John Mauceri (who is by far the finest Mass conductor yet) heard the sounds, it would have been better if they had stopped the show until the system was fixed.
One final note: As Mass was ending, the choirboys marched out into the aisles just as before, shaking hands with the people on the aisles and saying, "Let there be peace." But there was no effort to make people stand and hold hands as before. That's the thing that would have seemed very dated. We don't have that many ideals to feel together about these days.