Menotti’s “The Last Savage” Makes a Rare Appearance — in Santa Fe

ALL PHOTOS BY KEN HOWARD. Captions lost in software upgrade.

Gian Carlo Menotti
“The Last Savage”
Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico
Performance of Thursday, August 18

Review by David Gregson

Like so many opera lovers of my generation, one of my first operatic experiences came courtesy of NBC television (in very inglorious black and white) back on Christmas Eve of 1951. The broadcast was, of course, Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” and I can safely say it was love a first sight.

Many people have said the same thing — and to the composer himself. When I met him in San Diego many years ago (he was in town to direct “The Medium” and “The Telephone” at the Old Globe Theatre), he told me he had heard from thousands of people who saw that telecast and many subsequent ones. It was virtually a Christmas TV tradition up until 1978.

I found Menotti to be charming, witty, urbane, sophisticated, and very handsome for his age. He seemed to be almost a Renaissance man. He was perhaps the most amusing raconteur I have ever met.

That’s one reason I find his opera, “The Last Savage,” to be such an embarrassment. The first act is essentially racist with a very demeaning and inaccurate view of the people of India, the ruling class in particular but the poor as well; the second act is an extended exercise in philistinism, attacking modern art, modern music, and modern poetry (all areas that Menotti feared had left him behind), and the social/political/religious satire is utterly sophomoric, rarely rising above the level of a college review. The last act — and the whole opera (operetta, really) — depends on the creakiest of plot devices right out of W.S. Gilbert who, in turn, was parodying grand opera stories with their sudden revelations of previously unrecognized parentage.

I think that even for its time, 1963, this piece is astonishingly lame. But — it receives a top-notch production here in Santa Fe and, on the evidence of last night’s audience response, people seem to love it. So I am the only old geezer griping and kvetching. People think it’s a laugh riot. Who am I to criticize? And, after all, where else but in Santa Fe would I ever have been able to see this piece after successfully avoiding it, although not deliberately, for over 70 years? Part of the fun of Santa Fe is experiencing things you would never experience otherwise.

The story: Well, here goes. Wealthy Chicago millionaire Mr. Scattergood (the wonderful Kevin Burdette) wants to marry off his daughter, Kitty (the superbly off-the-hook and out-of-control coloratura soprano Anna Christy). She is a rather fatuous Vassar girl who fancies herself a brilliant anthropologist and dreams of achieving world fame and a college graduation coup by finding a sort of living missing link, the so-called “last savage.” But Daddy hopes to wed her to the Indian Crown Prince Kodanda (the wonderful tenor Sean Panikkar), supposed son of the zillionaire Maharaja of Rajaputana (delightful basso Thomas Hammons), but in actual fact (surprise!) the son of Scattergood himself, the result of a youthful fling with the present Mahareene (amusing mezzo Jamie Barton) before, of course, she became the Mahareene and put on 500 pounds.

Not much is made of the possible incest issue, by the way. It turns out to be an almost irrelevant impediment with regard to the story as it unfolds.

Anyhow, Kitty will not agree to the marriage match (with a man she does not know is her brother) until she has found her ridiculous caveman. She must search the lion-infested jungles of India to find him. Now — did Menotti really think lions live in India, a country so famous for its tigers? Perhaps the very clever stage director Ned Canty added the lions as a joke, although in one of the opera’s exchanges penned by Menotti himself, the Maharaja is going to feed dandelion soup to his subjects and actual lions “to the Christians.” Any true native of India would have been appalled by this scene, for Indian aristocrats are famous for their supernaturally abundant delicious banquets, especially when weddings are being discussed.

One of my closest friends is a Parsi Indian from Mumbai, and he is constantly shocked by Western misconceptions about his country. This friend introduced me to Edward Said’s famous book, “Orientalism,” which discusses at exhausting length the way Western opera, fiction and poetry has fostered odd delusions about Asia for centuries. I was unable to shake Said’s ideas, even though “The Last Savage” is clearly an absurd comedy. Much hilarity came from the long-bearded, skinny, tattooed turban-and-diaper clad workmen who pranced about and assumed comically grotesque poses. I might add, much of the amusing choreography by Seán Curran, looked more Thai than Indian. These creatures were indeed funny, but they made me weirdly uncomfortable as if slavery and poverty are a joke.

Ah, but to continue with the story. In order to get Kitty’s caveman obsession out of the way (she must find the savage first if she is to agree to marry the Prince), the parents make an agreement with Abdul (the fine and very popular “barihunk” Daniel Okulitch) to pretend to be the savage, for a promise of $99,999 plus one dollar in advance,. Mr. Okulitch has a physique that any man might envy, although it is waxed and burnished to a supernatural perfection, quite unlike the hairy beast mentioned in the libretto. Abdul is in love with the lovely Sardula (the fine soprano Jennifer Zetlan), but that won’t work out. Sardula ultimately marries the Prince, and Abdul and Kitty retreat to a primitive cave in India somewhere. We last see them preserved in a Chicago museum natural history diorama.

The weakest act is the intentionally satirical one. We get unexpected homophobia in the form of effeminate tailors dressing up the savage for human consumption in Chicago. We get jejune attacks on politics and religion, all barely on the high school level. (I said college earlier, I know.) We get truly philistine attacks on the state of the arts at the time. The savage couldn’t take it and neither could I. I easily could have jumped out that rear window myself and climbed a local skyscraper — headed, of course, for the bar in the sky lounge.

The largely insipid score was conducted by George Manahan — although, truth be told, the work contains several very attractive arias (with awkward texts) and at least one large ambitious ensemble that recalls the works of Rossini and Donizetti.

Sardula – Lawrence Zazzo
Kitty – Anna Christy
Maharanee – Jamie Barton
Kodanda – Sean Panikkar
Abdul – Daniel Okulitch
Mr. Scattergood – Kevin Burdette
Maharajah – Thomas Hammon

Conductor – George Manahan
Director – Ned Canny
Scenic Designer – Allen Moyer
Costume Designer – Allen Moyer
Lighting Designer – Rick Fisher
Choreographer – Seán Curran

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