Conductor James Gaffigan played a major role in this innovative approach, guiding the National Symphony Orchestra with certainty and power through Bernstein’s confusing chord progressions, giving the composer’s sometimes sleazy patterns an effortlessly chic feel.
Despite all its “simple” songs, “Mass” is not an easy work to perform. On Thursday evening, 210 artists performed on the unexpectedly spacious stage in the Concert Hall, including the 72-strong NSO, who was accompanied by the 72-strong Heritage Signature Chorale under Stanley Thurston. the 37 singers of the Children’s Chorus of Washington led by Margaret Nomura Clark, a 19-piece street people ensemble and eight dancers.
And while “Mass” is huge, it rests on the shoulders of a single soul, the Celebrant, movingly embodied and sung in this baritone revival Will Liverman.
Created in 1971 by baritone Alan Titus, the Celebrant’s central role remains something of a figure: is he a representative to listeners? Is he a priest who guides us through our own experiences? Or is he the embodiment of the faith and its inevitable rifts? The role requires an impossible balance between presence and disappearance.
Liverman wore it like a natural. His upbringing singing in Pentecostal choir allowed him to wear the elaborate robes of the Celebrant (beautifully realized by costume designer Lynly Saunders) rather than the other way around. But more importantly, as a singer, Liverman is ideally suited to handle (and humanize) Bernstein’s melange of musical vernaculars, which, sung incorrectly, can sound like an academic exercise or a faulty jukebox.
Liverman may be the first celebrant I’ve heard without any reverence for an original understanding of Bernstein. That is, he didn’t have to pour himself into the Reveler’s vessel. His song seemed to burst from within.
Those who saw Liverman star in the Metropolitan Opera’s groundbreaking March production of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” know that he’s that rare opera singer who can just as easily evoke (and project) dramatic precision. In “Mass,” he commanded the centerpiece, “Letter: The Word of the Lord,” as he turned to the audience with a pointed finger piercing the fourth wall: “O you mighty people, your hour is now!” And he navigated the demanding “crazy scene” of the work’s penultimate 16th movement (“Fraction: Things Get Broken”) with a captivating abandon that belied his meticulous control.
“Mass” also relies heavily on the strength of its ensemble singers and soloists, presented here as an assertively contemporary-looking congregation, whose members pour in from the sides of the stage and down the aisles. (When a wave of latecomers came in to find their seats, I half expected them to have lines to sing.)
Several of the soloists gave fantastic, if fleeting, performances. Soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb delivered a dazzling “Thank You”, and actor-singer Curtis Bannister brimming with personality in the “Non Credo” trope of the “Credo”. Mexican mezzo-soprano Sishel Claverie, bass Matt Boehler and actor-singer Bobby Conte also made powerful performances, to name a few.
High praise goes to the Heritage Signature Chorale, an imposing assembly that presided over the stage in crimson robes. In a few moments of dipping energy, they roared like a flame in the hearth of the room. They are a powerful chorus with an ecstatic energy and were responsible for many of the highlights of the evening. An impressive performance was also given by the children’s choir, especially the three designated soloists: Abraham Latner (who sang the “Prefatory Prayers”), Evelyn Goldin and Karlo Neumann-Caragol (who took over the show ending “Secret Songs”) .
“Mass” is a bear to bring on stage, but it’s also no mean feat to refresh. Bernstein was a fine composer, but a lousy seamstress, and the wild mood board of clashing textures and dated colors can sometimes test the limits of design, crossing the line between handmade and homemade.
Lyrically, too, Stephen Schwartz’s contributions can occasionally make your eyes roll to heaven. A singer is cursed with the line, “It’s easy for you to dig my jim jam jive.” Another passage about mosquitoes and rats and cats goes Seuss-Ian quickly. And just when you think you’ve endured the worst, he goes at the end and rhymes “praying” with “Kyrie-ing.”
Despite these challenges, Moritz’s staging – presented as a large chapel under hanging lanterns – does indeed crack a window and give “Mass” some much-needed fresh air. The personal crisis of faith represented by the celebrant (and believed by some to be a representative of Bernstein) is expanded into a community affair by Moritz: Here’s the congregation smashing the altar and dismantling the “Agnus Dei” in one of the show’s most thrilling pieces . They are also the ones who put everything back together.
Boykin’s choreography was streamlined and expressive, unobtrusive without falling into decoration. Some of the most poignant passages of Moritz’s staging were those that allowed the orchestra to reveal itself fully (as in a trio of Mahlerian “Meditations”) and free Boykin’s dancers to articulate the turmoil the work holds.
Whatever scruples I had, the kind of tech gremlins mocked every opening night. Certain clues here and there seemed a little spotty. The hall itself was often flooded by unfortunately amplified sound, Bernstein’s bombastic fortissimos that turned into a chaotic cacophony (which admittedly worked at times).
The occasional clash of unbalanced mixes and jumbled blockages on stage made it difficult to dissect soloists at times, a sort of Where’s Waldo to my ears. And by the end, Liverman’s microphone must have turned in, as every ruffle of his robe was registered down the hall, muting his last lines. (Great for a ASMR fannot so much for members of the public.)
But technical blunders like this are of limited significance in a work like ‘Mass’, which is invested more in suspending faith than its opposite. Dusted and spruced up, it still has a lot to say about the power of individual belief in an age of fear (whether it’s ’71 or ’22). But Bernstein’s music, in its deliberately mismatched mishmash of styles, also has something to say about American identity: it’s not enough to contain masses – you also have to free them.
Leonard Bernstein’s Mass repeats Saturday and Sunday at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.