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Ionarts at Santa Fe: 'The Last Savage'

Thomas Hammons (Maharajah) and Dancers, in The Last Savage
Santa Fe Opera, 2011 (photo by Ken Howard)
Gian Carlo Menotti’s comic opera The Last Savage received a second chance at Santa Fe Opera, in an antic, lavishly appointed production, seen on Friday night. It has long been one of the company’s goals to give a fair shot to under-appreciated operas of the 20th century. In an economic climate that seems to be going from bad to worse, it is a courageous stand to take, and it paid off yet again in a staging that tickled the funny bone and pleased the eyes. The experience justified the more or less favorable assessment of the late critic Alan Rich, one of the few reviewers not to have trashed the work at its premiere, saying that it was funny, melodic, and while perhaps not a masterpiece, pleasing enough (see my preview article for more background on the opera). Menotti’s admiration for Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini, whose heritage he likely saw himself taking up, is clear in some haunting tunes, complex ensembles, and rhythmically rollicking overture in the score. It is also certainly worth hearing.

That turn backward to the tonal tradition was not only self-conscious on Menotti’s part but overt, referenced in a deliberate skewering of the atonal Darmstadt school. When Kitty brings her savage back from India to Chicago to civilize him, at a hilariously parodied 60s cocktail party -- complete with a Gershwinesque appropriation of jazz -- beat poetry, hip atheism, abstract expressionism, and the sexual revolution all come in for parody. However, the best-targeted satire is saved for a performance of a new piece in the “aleadodecaphonic style,” a brilliant aping of a Sprechstimme song by Schoenberg or Webern. In a sense, with this opera and later works in a similar vein, Menotti was attempting, in a somewhat more high-minded, compositionally accomplished way than Bernstein, the hybridization of opera and American musical theater.

Jennifer Zetlan (Sardula), Jamie Barton (Maharanee), Kevin Burdette (Mr. Scattergood), and Thomas Hammons (Maharajah) in The Last Savage, Santa Fe Opera, 2011 (photo by Ken Howard)
The cast, variable in terms of vocal distinction, all took to the comic demands of this rather silly opera with obvious relish. Thomas Hammons had another pleasing turn in a character role as the pompous Maharajah, who attempts to marry his son off to an American girl, matched at every step by Kevin Burdette as the girl’s father, who had just as sharp comic timing and a more robust voice. Versatile and funny mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton stole the show as the enormous Maharanee, ferried around on a pink carriage. Tenor Sean Panikkar, who caught our ear last season at Washington National Opera, again sang with lovely resonance as Kodanda, the Indian son who manages to find his way out of the arranged marriage. Anna Christy had the right sort of nasal, fluffy soubrette voice for Kitty, the American girl who wants to find the last savage for her anthropology thesis, but the very high notes were too squealy. Baritone Daniel Okulitch's Abdul (the savage), chosen perhaps just as much for how he would look in his Tarzan costume as for his voice, was a dead ringer for Mel Gibson from a distance.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Bryan Miller, Santa Fe Opera: A drop-dead funny 'Last Savage' (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 11)

George Loomis, The Last Savage, Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico (Financial Times, August 8)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Santa Fe Opera’s revival of Menotti comedy is savagely delightful (The Classical Review, August 7)

"Maria Malcontent," Just Salvage (Parterre Box, August 7)

John Stege, Comedic Justice (Santa Fe Reporter, July 26)
Director Ned Canty went all out on a grand, crazy staging, with 60s-era costumes and set pieces (designed by Allen Moyer), complete with a gyrating chorus of tattooed swamis, in white turbans and loincloths in the Indian scenes (choreography by Seán Curran). Menotti went a little overboard on the vignettes poking fun at the 1960s, the fruity tailors who measure the savage, blowhard scientists, society ladies and debutantes, and on and on: some of it could certainly be cut, but Canty gave it all carefully directed attention for maximum impact. The zany atmosphere, all sight gags and crazy dances, was reminiscent of another influence heavy on Menotti, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, including many slightly twee rhymed couplets (“You were smoking a Melachrino / You looked like Rudolph Valentino”), complete with an improbably family relation uncovered at the conclusion to tie up the end of the opera.

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