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A half-century later, Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ shines anew at Kennedy Center

The arts center celebrates its 50th anniversary with a spirited revival of its inaugural production, starring Will Liverman

Will Liverman in the role of the Celebrant in the revival of “Mass” at the Kennedy Center. (Scott Suchman/The Kennedy Center)

If recent polls are true, and Americans are showing up at church less frequently than ever, you wouldn’t have known it Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, where a devout and nearly sold-out Concert Hall delighted in the two-hour service of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.”

Presented as the capstone to the arts center’s 50th-anniversary celebrations, this revived and slightly revamped production of Bernstein’s genre-fluid treatment of the Catholic liturgy faithfully revisits the work and, more important, the electric spirit surrounding its premiere. In the hands of director Alison Moritz and choreographer Hope Boykin, “Mass” felt less transfigured than restored: its details clarified, its highlights polished, its angles more keenly lit.

Conductor James Gaffigan played a large part in this regenerative approach, leading the National Symphony Orchestra through Bernstein’s confounding chordal corridors with sureness and vigor, and making the composer’s sometimes dowdy patterns feel effortlessly chic.

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For all its “simple” songs, “Mass” is no easy work to stage. On Thursday night, 210 performers took the unexpectedly ample stage installed in the Concert Hall, including the 72-piece NSO, which was joined by the 72-member Heritage Signature Chorale under Stanley Thurston. the 37 singers of the Children’s Chorus of Washington under Margaret Nomura Clark, a 19-member “street people ensemble,” and eight dancers.

And though “Mass” is massive, it rests on the shoulders of a single soul, the Celebrant, movingly embodied and sung in this revival by baritone Will Liverman.

Created in 1971 by baritone Alan Titus, the central role of the Celebrant remains something of a cipher: Is he a representative for listeners? Is he a priest leading us through our own experiences? Or is he the embodiment of faith and its inevitable fissures? The role demands an impossible balance of presence and disappearance.

Liverman carried it like a natural. His upbringing singing in Pentecostal choirs enabled him to wear the elaborate vestments of the Celebrant (beautifully realized by costume designer Lynly Saunders) instead of the other way around. But more important, as a singer, Liverman is uniquely suited to handle (and humanize) Bernstein’s mélange of musical vernaculars, which, sung wrong, can sound like an academic exercise or a malfunctioning jukebox.

In fact, Liverman may be the first Celebrant I’ve heard unbound by any deference to some originalist understanding of Bernstein. That is, he didn’t need to pour himself into the vessel of the Celebrant. His song seemed to burst from within.

Those who saw Liverman sing the lead in the Metropolitan Opera’s landmark production in March of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” know he is that rare opera singer who can as easily summon (and project) dramatic precision. In “Mass,” he commanded the centerpiece, “Epistle: The Word of the Lord,” turning to address the audience with a pointed finger that punctured the fourth wall: “O you people of power, your hour is now!” And he navigated the demanding “mad scene” of the work’s penultimate 16th movement (“Fraction: Things Get Broken”) with captivating abandon that belied his meticulous control.

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“Mass” also relies heavily on the strength of its ensemble singers and soloists, here presented as an assertively contemporary-looking congregation, its members streaming in from the sides of the stage and down the aisles. (When a wave of latecomers filtered in to find their seats, I half-expected them to have lines to sing.)

Several of the soloists gave fantastic, if fleeting, turns. Soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb delivered a dazzling “Thank You,” and actor-singer Curtis Bannister brimmed with personality in the “Non Credo” trope of the “Credo.” The Mexican mezzo-soprano Sishel Claverie, bass Matt Boehler and actor-singer Bobby Conte also made powerful appearances, to name a few.

High praise goes to the Heritage Signature Chorale, an imposing assembly that presided over the stage in crimson-bibbed robes. At a couple of moments of dipping energy, they roared up like a flame in the hearth of the hall. They’re a powerhouse chorus with an ecstatic energy and were responsible for many of the night’s highs. An impressive showing was also given by the children’s chorus, especially its three designated soloists: Abraham Latner (who sang the “Prefatory Prayers”), Evelyn Goldin and Karlo Neumann-Caragol (who took on the show-ending “Secret Songs”).

“Mass” is a bear to stage, but it’s also no small feat to freshen. Bernstein was a fine composer but a lousy seamstress, and the work’s wild mood board of clashing textures and dated colors can sometimes test the limits of design, toeing the line between handcrafted and homemade.

Lyrically, too, Stephen Schwartz’s contributions can now and then send the eyes rolling heavenward. One singer is cursed with the line: “It’s easy for you to dig my jim jam jive.” Another passage concerning gnats and rats and cats goes Seuss-Ian fast. And just when you think you’ve weathered the worst, at the end he goes and rhymes “praying” with “Kyrie-ing.”

Despite these challenges, Moritz’s staging — presented as a grand chapel under pendulous lanterns — does indeed crack a window and give “Mass” some much needed fresh air. The personal crisis of faith represented by the Celebrant (and assumed by some to be a proxy for Bernstein’s) is expanded by Moritz into a community concern: Here is the congregation that trashes the altar and dismantles the “Agnus Dei” in one of the show’s most thrilling stretches. They also are the ones who put it all back together.

Boykin’s choreography was streamlined and expressive, nonintrusive without resolving into decoration. Some of the most gripping passages of Moritz’s staging were those that allowed the orchestra to fully reveal itself (as in a trio of Mahlerian “Meditations”) and that freed Boykin’s dancers to articulate the unrest that tethers the work.

Whatever qualms I had were the kind of technical gremlins that taunt any opening night. Certain cues here and there seemed a bit smudged. The hall itself was often overwhelmed by unfortunately amplified sound, Bernstein’s bombastic fortissimos smearing into a chaotic cacophony (which, admittedly, sometimes worked).

The occasional collision of unbalanced mixing and muddled blocking onstage made it difficult to parse soloists at times, a Where’s Waldo of sorts for my ears. And toward the end, Liverman’s microphone must have taken a turn inward, as each ruffle of his robes registered through hall and muffled his final lines. (Great for an ASMR fan, not so much for audience members.)

But technical flubs like these are of limited consequence with a work like “Mass,” which is more invested in suspending belief than its opposite. Dusted off and spruced up, it still has plenty to say about the power of individual faith in an age of anxiety (be it ’71 or ’22). But Bernstein’s music, in its intentionally mismatched mishmash of styles, also has something to tell us about American identity: It’s not enough to contain multitudes — one must also set them free.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” repeats Saturday and Sunday at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.

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