When the administrators of Catholic University sought a cultural event for the inauguration of the Edward J. Pryzbyla student center, they reached back to a work commissioned for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971. Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" has been the focus of a week-long symposium, culminating in two performances last weekend in the Great Room of the new building.
The title doesn't tell half the story. Based on the Catholic liturgy interspersed with words by Bernstein, "Godspell" lyricist Stephen Schwartz and even four lines by Paul Simon, it's far more accurately described by its subtitle: "A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers." The work employs three choruses, symphony orchestra, blues-rock band, six dancers, a boy soprano and the lead role of Celebrant.
Bernstein seems to explore every musical genre he'd ever encountered, from classical aria to circus march. The result is sometimes purposefully cacophonous and often riveting.
While it was painful to watch all 300 performers of the university's symphony orchestra, chorus and women's choir squeezed into the Great Room, stage director Michael Scarola (imported from the New York City Opera for the occasion) made the most of the all-purpose space, and conductor Murry Sidlin kept balance problems to a minimum.
Overall, the singers, among them Suzanne Fleming-Atwood, Danny Tippett and Kurt Boehm, proved their talent again and again. Boy soprano Gleb Drobkov was confident and clear, managing to keep a straight face as he led the women's choir in a kazoo serenade. Brian Cali was a convincing preacher at a gospel revival meeting. Douglas Webster was unquestionably the star of the show as the Celebrant, essentially the master of ceremonies. Webster has performed the role numerous times, initially at Bernstein's 70th birthday celebration. From his first appearance onstage in the guise of a folk singer ("Simple Song") to the core of the work as a priest and finally as a defeated man ("Things Get Broken"), Webster commanded audience attention with his expansive range of emotions and ardent voice.
Conceived during the Vietnam War, the work met with much controversy at its premiere; many Catholics were shocked at the unorthodox context of the sacred text, critics despised it, and President Nixon's staff claimed coded messages were possibly hidden in the Latin text. There are indeed blatant antiwar sentiments, notably the insistent chanting of dona nobis pacem ("give us peace"), and it is quite possibly the only Mass to contain profanity.