Pace the naysayers (and there are still many of them): Bernstein’s Mass IS a masterpiece. But it’s also a theatre piece and what unfolded here at this inexplicably belated Prom premiere (inexplicable because if ever there was a Prom piece, this is it) was so static and oratorio-like and even grand in that time honoured Albert Hall tradition (safety in numbers) that it barely hinted at the inclusiveness that Bernstein so desperately wanted to engender at a time (1971) when social, political, and religious questions needed so urgently to be asked and answered. And even when the conductor Kristjan Järvi did seek to “involve” us – at the stupendous climax of the piece where the words “Dona nobis pacem” morph from a plea to a demand for peace – he spectacularly missed the point by engaging us in rhythmic hand clapping at precisely the moment where communal anger not celebration is so dramatically signaled.
A stage director was credited – Thomas Kiemle – but he simply surrendered to the massed choirs and space issues, ignoring vivid details like the arrival of the marching bands and the all-important transformation of the Celebrant (Morten Frank Larsen) from preppy, guitar strumming, jeans clad, regular guy to pious priest, out of touch with his contemporaries. There was no dancing (as specified in the subtitle of the piece) save for embarrassing on-the-spot jiggling from the children and adult choruses and some cheesy attempts at disco lighting. And something should be done now about the dismal quality of the pre-recorded tapes.
On a more positive note, the greatest strength of this performance was, as it should be, in the casting of the Street People (many, in keeping with the Welsh origin of the performance, drawn from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama). From the moment they burst uninvited into the proceedings (and the director at least got this right) they are the “challengers”, questioning and reflecting on a whole raft of issues – all expressed in some of the score’s most telling numbers – “tropes” – that’s “songs” to you and me (with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Bernstein himself) embracing a whole range of styles from folk, funk, rock to Kurt Weillian pithiness. It would have been good to know who sang what. They were all good, one or two outstanding. Too bad they were so disadvantaged by being shoehorned upstage and having to squeeze past colleagues for each of their solo “turns”.
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales (terrific) were buttressed by a Rock and Blues Band and Järvi was on the money in terms of style and tempi. The emotional climacterics of Mass are the orchestral “Meditations” progressing as they do from Lennyesque sweetness to 12-tone rigour. The juxtapositions is this amazing score can stop you cold: like the abrupt and alarming switch from the wild Klezmer of jubilant Jewish folk dancing to the simplest monophonic setting of the Lord’s Prayer.
That, of course, is tentatively intoned by the Celebrant and his casting is the most critical of all. He has to be American and he has to possess a resilient voice born and bred in musical theatre with an effortless extension into head-tones and a touch of operatic heft to boot. A very tall order indeed. Morten Frank Larsen, a decent Danish baritone with accented English was all wrong in so many respects – too operatic, too formal, and in the hair-raising “mad scene” (Bernstein’s Peter Grimes moment) not nearly enough of an actor. His breakdown (with its insanely disturbing play on words) should touch us deeply and I wonder why was he “disconnected” from the company – and in particular the radiant boy treble Julius Foo – in the healing reconciliation of the closing minutes.
When I think what Marin Alsop and Jude Kelly achieved at the South Bank last year…