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The Last Savage Comes to Santa Fe

Santa Fe
Santa Fe Opera House
07/23/2011 -  & August 5*, 11, 18, 25, 2011
Gian Carlo Menotti: The Last Savage
Kevin Burdette (Mr. Scattergood), Thomas Hammons (Maharajah), Jamie Barton (Maharanee), Sean Panikkar (Kodana), Anna Christy (Kitty), Jennifer Zetlan (Sardula), Daniel Okulitch (Abdul)
The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, George Manahan (Conductor)
Ned Canty (Director), Allen Moyer (Scenic and Costume Designer), Rick Fisher (Lighting Designer), Sean Curran (Choreography)

(© Ken Howard/Courtesy of SFO)

Santa Fe Opera is honoring the 100th anniversary of Gian Carlo Menotti's birth with a raunchy, flamboyant and yet touching production of The Last Savage. The opera opens with coolies wearing bulky white diapers and turbans. In a Congo line, they prance across the stage with wiggles and hoists of the avoirdupois drawing instant applause from the audience. They set the tone for the evening's romp through a delicious opera that critics panned when it debuted in Paris and New York, although not surprisingly, audiences have always loved it. In the Santa Fe production, reasons are clear for the opera’s appeal, not the least of which are charming sets ranging from India to Chicago, to the deep jungle. Sean Curran choreographs the drama throughout with a touch of topicality and broad humor.

Paris Opera commissioned the piece, the first commissioned opera since Verdi’s Don Carlo. It was at first specified as a spectacular. Through three changes of management, the basic concept remained: a regal court in India, a glamorous cocktail party in Chicago, and the sensual, fetid jungle. Stravinsky as critic called it an “eye closer.” Menotti did not object too much. But surely Menotti is an eye opener, who is often called a successor to Puccini and learned much from Mussorgsky.

The composer wrote tartly that critics who didn’t like The Last Savage thought opera was good when it was acid, atonal and unmelodic, but bad when it was sweet and graceful. As opera houses around the country begin the debatable practice of putting musicals into their repertoires, Menotti’s lighter works look like very serious opera. Anyway Rossini is fun, and Chabrier, Adams sometimes, and Handel too. Fun does not preclude being good.

This Santa Fe production is handled with comic surety and aplomb by director Ned Canty, who proudly reports that only Menotti himself had directed the opera up until now. George Manahan conducted the music with zest.

Anna Christy who has warmed up on Zerbinetta, sings the role of Kitty, a Vassar graduate pursuing higher learning as she seeks out the last savage and tries to avoid a marriage arranged by her father, a tycoon from Chicago, and an Indian maharajah.

The maharajah’s wife, a woman of exceptionally wide hips, spends her time trying to recall where she met the businessman father in an earlier hipless phase in which she was more sexually active. Queen Victoria was clearly being channeled as Jamie Barton sang with charm. Jennifer Zetlan as Sardula captured her melodies reminiscent of Chabrier with a lovely lilt, which probably helped her win the prince. Daniel Okulitch flexed his muscles like King Kong and Tarzan, and let forth his big bass-baritone mixing primitive manliness and sensitivity.

That Christy is dressed in a Dior style pink safari outfit tips us off to her future with a faux savage planted in the jungle by the matchmakers. Costumes by Allen Moyer, who also provided the charming sets, hit the spot throughout. Kitty’s work outfits, the Maharanee looking like a windup Queen Victoria doll, and those slaves in diapers were costumed by Moyer, who also provided the eye candy sets. Location signposts popped up and shimmered, although we knew where we were: in the midst of a rollicking performance.

Fun as we proceed to find out who is related to whom, and whether society or the pre-historic world is preferable. The answer does not come at the end. You choose. In any case, Santa Fe has ratcheted up the pleasure in this not so simple, yet frothy, Menotti.

Susan Hall



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