Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Rumble in the Jungle

July 28, 2011

Anna Christy Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

The standard opera repertoire is filled with works that overcame bad starts. Works that were considered horrific flops would sometimes go into hibernation for long periods only to be revived decades later to great acclaim and popularity. Unfortunately Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Last Savage isn’t likely to become one of them. There is a window of opportunity for such an event right now. Santa Fe Opera opened a new production of Menotti’s notorious, early-60s flop last week and, true to form, they gave it everything they’ve got. Of course, that was also the story in 1964 when the Metropolitan Opera premiered the recently completed work in the U.S. with a starry cast that included Nicolai Gedda, Roberta Peters, and George London. The Last Savage was savaged then in the press as it had been in its Paris premiere just months before. Outside of only a handful of appearances since then, the opera has largely been put aside. But when Santa Fe Opera and its director Charles MacKay went looking for an English-language comedy to round out the 2011 season, a chance to revive this piece seemed like just the ticket.

Anna Christy and Daniel Okulitch Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

And they almost get away with it. It’s a wonderful production directed by Ned Canty that visually recreates the heady early 1960s. The Last Savage focuses on Kitty, a Vassar student who has come to a make-believe part of India to capture and study the last known savage human living in the wild. Her father and the local Maharajah are more intent on arranging her marriage to the Maharajah’s son, but she won’t have it until achieving her goal. A plot is hatched by the parents to pay a country bumpkin, Abdul, to pretend to be the fabled savage who Kitty subsequently captures and takes back to Chicago to train him in the ways of the world. Canty keeps the visual humor of these scenes percolating along. The show is colorful and sharp with plenty of comic activity. The Act II cocktail party, which alienates Abdul from the ways of the West, is particularly pleasing with its neon-lit Chicago sign and parodies about modern art, science, and religion.

Anna Christy and cast of The Last Savage Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

The cast is excellent as well. Anna Christy is Kitty and manages the gymnastics of the opera’s most challenging vocal part with ease. Daniel Okulitch is a robust and funny Abdul. Okulitch is once again costumed without a shirt more often than not, which enjoyable as it is to watch, makes me worry that audiences don’t take his formidable vocal ability as seriously as they should. He's got a lovely baritone and excels in so many roles, particularly those of Mozart. The supporting roles were all well done, including Jamie Barton’s Maharanee, Sean Panikkar as Kodanda, the Maharajah’s son, and Kevin Burdette as Mr. Scattergood, Kitty’s father. One couldn’t have asked for more from the pit, which featured the orchestra under George Manahan who has few rivals in leading this sort of American material.

Anna Christy and Daniel Okulitch Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

But with all of this TLC and despite some genuine smiles, The Last Savage can’t escape Menotti’s bland score. On the one hand it is often outright melodic and accessible, but it isn’t particularly memorable most of the time either. This is supposedly the kind of music that audiences were crying out for in the early 60s, as they were alienated by the academic trends in composition lauded by music critics who were not kind to Menotti's more conservative approach. But not being modern wasn’t enough to guarantee an audience for this particular opera then or now. There is a septet close to the end of Act III that comes closest to providing something musically interesting, and feels Mozartean in the way it stands out in a work that contains almost no ensemble moments and little chorus work. The vocal writing seems uncertain at times as well. There are a few coloratura flourishes for Kitty, but much of the libretto doesn’t beg to be sung. As for the libretto itself, the story line is clever enough and solidly moves along. But this sort of early-60s comedy about modern romance and the changing role of the sexes does seem dated. Imagine an operatic treatment of a much stronger story, Pillow Talk, and you’ll get the idea. Except without Rock Hudson. Or Thelma Ritter. One can’t fault Santa Fe Opera for not putting its best foot forward, though. Menotti’s The Last Savage has a history of artists giving it the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes, love is not enough. The opera runs through August 25.



Santa Fe deserves a lot of points for presenting this. They are my favorite ever company---very much like Central City for its similar courage to produce dufferent opera.

Just got back fro San Fran Ring
You can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig.
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