"Look," says the Celebrant near the beginning of the mad scene in Leonard Bernstein's "Mass." ". . . Isn't that -- odd . . . / Glass shines -- brighter -- when it's -- broken. . . / I never noticed that." This is one of the things "Mass" is about -- not only "how easily things get broken," which is the most obvious theme, but how the process of breaking makes them "shine brighter." When he finally gets to it (and it does take quite a while), it turns out that Bernstein is talking about breakdown as a process of renewal. It was a timely theme in the year before Watergate when "Mass" was composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center -- and unfortunately, it is still a timely theme 10 years later. Perhaps it is really timeless and Bernstein is finally playing in the major leagues with Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven -- the big guys who composed masses that are still played (though not in church) after a century or two. Bernstein may have indicated some aspiration to timelessness by using the Latin text (which was already out of use when he composed "Mass") as well as "additional texts" in English by himself and Stephen Schwartz. But I doubt that "Mass" was composed for the ages and so, apparently, does Bernstein, who looked it over to see whether any updating was needed after a mere 10 years. Ultimately, updating will be impossible and irrelevant; "Mass" is very much music of the present moment. The time must come when the rock segments, which are still so "with it " today, will seem as quaint and old-fashioned as "She's Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage." But that time is not yet, and we may leave at least that problem to posterity. For the moment, "Mass" is still a work of enormous cumulative power, perhaps more powerful because it is far from flawless. Glass shines brighter when it's broken. "Mass" would not be as effective if it were smoother. Let's get to the problems first. Above all, "Mass" is seriously lacking in stylistic coherence -- appropriately, since lack of stylistic coherence is one of the things it is about. For various members of its diverse audience, it will evoke echoes of everything from "Jesus Christ Superstar" to Schoenberg's "Moses and Aaron." Its chief tension, in a sense, is the tension between those two modes of approaching a religious subject on the musical stage. Ultimately, its basic problem as a work for the ages may be that it lacks, except for rare flashes, the tremendous sense of awe -- the sense of distance between God and man -- that permeates Schoenberg's work. What we have instead is "God loves all simple things / For God is the simplest of all," a sentiment that marks it very much as a product of and for our time. I suppose that we, the audience, should be happy to see ourselves reflected so clearly in such an impressive effort. The reflection is as much psychological as musical, though the musical timeliness is most obvious. Hardly a single phrase of the piece could have been composed at any time except the late 20th century, though there are segments (like the harmonically bare, craggy opening "Kyrie") that seem to come from a place outside of time. Psychologically, it is a mass for the me generation; the '70s looking at organized religion and asking "what's in it for me?" What's in it are a lot of good tunes, some fancy dancing, occasional moments of comfort and a splendid framework for an identity crisis. The undertones seem curiously anti-clerical; very pointedly so at the end, when organized religion (in the person of the Celebrant) has suffered a breakdown and wanders off the stage, and then a surface of things. As the plot thickens and it becomes obvious that he is personally inadequate to the needs of the congregation, he retreats into ceremony. His blue jeans are covered gradually by a series of liturgical vestments, each more ornate than the one before, the gleaming gold of his chasuble contrasting strangely with the penitential, violet cassocks of the dancers who are his attendants. The "me" emphasis comes into focus most sharply perhaps in the "Our Father," which is supposed to be addressed to the Almighty but turns into the celebrant's loving inspection of his own navel: "If tomorrow tumbles / And everything I love is gone / I will face regret / All my days, and yet / I will go on . . . on . . ." One of the problems of "Mass" is how it goes on -- two solid hours of high-energy action without intermission are a lot to ask of the audience, let alone the 250 performers. Yet it does not seem like two hours. One of Bernstein's problems has always been that he doesn't know when to stop. But it is hard for anyone else to suggest how it could be done better. On the whole, the parts work well together, and each segment is well- wrought -- for example, the perversely brilliant Credo, where the music breaks the text down into detached syllables that lose all intelligibility. No living composer except Bernstein could have written a work like this, with its blend of classical and popular idioms, both handled with the ease of a master. "Mass" reestablishes his credentials as probably the finest living composer of music for dancers. And he deserves special credit for being able to set a Latin text without sounding like Carl Orff, a challenge that few composers have managed to meet in our time. At first, the dramatic solution seems rather makeshift, but it works. As the congregation welds itself into a strong, new entity, the effect becomes overwhelmingly powerful -- not only for those who have thought occasionally about the issues raised in this psychodrama but even for those who have come to hear some good tunes and see some high-class production numbers. They are unlikely ever to see a better production than the one now running at the Kennedy Center. The voices are excellent (particularly Joseph Kolinski, who was the Celebrant the night I saw it), the dancers versatile, the chorus overwhelming, and John Mauceri's conducting is superb. "Mass" functions on many levels -- with varying effectiveness, to be sure, but on the whole splendidly. I plan to see it again and recommend it warmly. There is nothing else quite like it, although it may occasionally remind us of other things. And it is seldom that we see anything done as well as this production.
MASS -- In the Kennedy Center Opera House through September 27.