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29.7.11

Santa Fe Preview: 'The Last Savage'

available at Amazon
Menotti, The Last Savage, N. Gedda, R. Peters, T. Stratas, Metropolitan Opera, T. Schippers
(live recording, 1964)
The Santa Fe Opera has a distinguished history of presenting world and American premieres of new operas. For example, the company gave the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's Help, Help, The Globolinks in 1969, which was the only Menotti opera produced in Santa Fe until this season. Typical of the Santa Fe Opera spirit, the forty-year Menotti drought will be broken not with one of the better-known operas but with The Last Savage, a work that was almost universally declared a failure. Menotti labeled the work a "grand opera buffa," which gives a good idea of the mixture of philosophical and absurd in the story of a rich-girl Vassar anthropology student who goes to India to locate the "last savage" for her senior thesis. Hilarity ensues, to be sure. Menotti wrote his own libretto, in Italian, which was translated into French for its disastrous world premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1963, and then back into English (both times by someone other than Menotti) for its equally catastrophic Metropolitan Opera debut in 1964. If the libretto was not already a mess before that, it certainly was afterward.

Other Articles:

Brian Holt, Rumble in the Jungle (Out West Arts, July 28)

James M. Keller, Santa Fe Opera salvages 'Savage' (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 24)

Barry Singer, Salvaging the Savaged (Opera News, May 2011)
In spite of it all, I have to admit that I am thrilled to be seeing The Last Savage this summer. Menotti did revise the work for a couple revivals, including one for his 70th birthday celebration at the Spoleto Festival. Among the people who remember that version fondly is none other than Santa Fe Opera's general director, Charles Mackay, who worked for the Spoleto Festival at the time. As Mackay told another reporter: "I just think it's important to revisit contemporary works that were not necessarily well received." And so it is. What better time to reexamine The Last Savage than the 100th year since Menotti was born, on July 7, 1911?

The idea of encountering the un-encountered, a tribe that has not had contact with other humans, is still seductive, enough to be able to fool people. The Romantic notion of the "noble savage" comes in for more satirical treatment here by Menotti, as Kitty, the daughter of millionaire parents, is duped into believing that an Indian man, planted in her path after being paid a large sum of money to act like a savage, is the actual last savage she has been hoping to find. Along the way, modern notions of art and civilization, including contemporary forms of art and music, are ridiculed as being incomprehensible to this simple man. At the heart of the work, and in many ways of the scathing criticism of it, is Menotti's avoidance of atonal musical ideas in his score. It may be an overlarge set of ideas on which to hang a comic opera. Maybe not, though: the late critical giant Alan Rich fondly remembered himself as "the man who liked Gian Carlo Menotti's The Last Savage," a judgment seized on by some "to establish my perversion." He defended his review by saying that "its musical faults were apparent, but that the work was thoroughly enjoyable in its own simple-minded way."

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