The Adelaide Festival has delivered a world-class rendition of the controversial musical theatre piece Mass (1971) by Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein, orchestral arrangement by L. Bernstein, H. Kay and J. Tunnick. The performance brings together more than 180 artists including the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kristjan Järvi, Absolute Trio, Adelaide Festival Chorus and a children's chorus. American baritone Jubilant Sykes leads a stellar main cast of local performers into a festival of energetic performances and effervescent vocal mastery.
The author of West Side Story aims to expose external and internal conflict of a different nature. Bernstein's Mass shatters the boundaries of spiritual pursuits by questioning, destroying and resurrecting what the spectator may hold most precious, intimate and sacred. The composer uses deliberately unexpected and offensive statements both in the libretto and music, borrowing text and structure from the Roman Catholic Mass. The main themes are visually enhanced by an emblematic set design by Geoff Cobham, digital images by Kojo Productions and Mark Pennington's lighting, supported by the unobtrusive direction style of Andy Packer.
The narrative occurs on the street, it is in the life and the life of 'street people'. It takes place in front of a church building that is in a state of transition and renovation. This church facade is the backdrop of a story that represents the tumultuous reality of human existence and that power within that is the cause of the universe and the maker of its laws. Its stained windows display the ugliness of illusion and the beauty of truth, only to fall down and open a wider horizon to the spiritual quest at the end of the piece.
The final Communion is a commanding statement of unity, where the pure voice of David Linn stands out initially to be dissolved into a river of sound at the end. Its efficacy is ever more pungent because of the stark contrast of the previous sections. In Fraction, Jubilant Sykes delivers the most sublime portrayal of a spiritual seeker in crisis. The artist delves skilfully and honestly into depths of immense emotion that are rarely seen on stage and especially in this genre of music drama, which is normally viewed upon solely as an entertainment genre.
The music shines with unexpected vibrancy of styles and variety of colours. The vocalists display a range of techniques from belting and opera to soft head voice tones, and a palette of ensemble and choral textures that are rarely heard in other works. One can enjoy Bernstein's unusual musical theatre idiom in Gospel-Sermon: God Said, but also further experimentation with gospel, blues, jazz and rock that are woven into original instrumentations as well as combinations of live music and pre-recorded pieces. Kristjan Järvi's conducting and Jane Rossetto's sound design enhance this unusual sonic experience superbly.
The arts, the theatre and Mass have the ambition to shock and awaken audiences in order to lead them into a catharsis. It is only in the fire of questioning and experiencing that such truth is born. The purpose of the performing arts and arts festivals is to enrich the cultural and spiritual life of societies and to push forward human evolvement and progress. This process always starts with the individual. The bold programming of Mass, for that reason, places the Adelaide Festival amongst the best festivals of the arts in the world.
Adelaide Festival, State Opera of South Australia in association with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra present
by Leonard Bernstein
Conductor Kristjan Järvi
Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Dates: Fri 9 Mar – Sat 10 Mar 8pm
Tickets: $139 – $30
Bookings: adelaidefestival.com.au | BASS 131 246
Written by Daniela Kaleva, University of South Australia