Last night, the audience at Adelaide’s Festival Theatre witnessed the Australian premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, one of the major drawcards for this year’s Adelaide Festival. Bernstein regarded Mass as his defining achievement – and if we judge the production purely on a scale of musical extravaganza and variety, then perhaps he was right!
Mass features a full symphony orchestra (Adelaide Symphony Orchestra), an adult and a children’s choir (Adelaide Festival Chorus), a stage band (Absolute Trio), several soloists and dancers. The music oscillates between chorale, classical, modern orchestral and even swing, and the lyrics somehow find a balance between Latin liturgy, Hebrew prayer and contemporary English.
While the music of West Side Story might be more commonly known, Mass’s thirty-two musical numbers provided ample variety and excitement. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and Adelaide Festival Chorus, under the expert guidance of conductor Kristjan Järvi, provide contrast to the onstage rock band (Absolute Trio).
Even though Mass is not considered a ‘musical’, the dramatisation and action in the comic ensemble number God Said, and emotionally charged religious awakening of Angus Dei were clear audience highlights. Despite a mostly strong ensemble, the obvious standout performer was celebrant Jubilant Sykes. His riveting portrayal of an inspirational figure who gradually transforms into a man plagued with self-doubt and demons is enhanced in each of his solo numbers and in particular, his heart warming duet with boy soprano David Linn.
Unfortunately, the mostly polished cast performance was not always enhanced by those behind the scenes. Sound issues began in the first number with the ASO overpowering the pure falsetto solo of Jubilant Sykes. This continued sporadically throughout, particularly with the presence of pre-recorded music. In some numbers it was difficult to comprehend the words, though this may have been due to the sheer number of performers rather than any technical issue.
I am not a particularly religious person (in fact I’m fairly sure that Bernstein’s Mass is the first that I have attended), so some of the subtleties of the content were lost on me. The broader concepts – questioning faith and inner turmoil – were easily appreciated and visually enhanced through the changing stain glass projections on the church windows.
This one act production of Bernstein’s Mass was like nothing I have seen before. While it will not appeal to everyone, the Australian premiere of Mass received a lengthy standing ovation and the 150 plus players onstage deserved the applause.