Review: Loving “The Last Savage”: Over the Top Menotti Charms at Santa Fe Opera – August 5, 2011

In the Europe of days of old, comic and serious opera had their own theaters. The tradition in the United States has been to employ both the masks of comedy and tragedy in any opera company’s repertory. But the comic genre itself has two masks – the standards such as Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” and Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”, that can be very funny but have their boundaries as to how much slapstick is appropriate; as opposed to the farces whose boundaries, if there are any, are far, far away.

So far this year, I have reported favorably on two revivals of farcical European productions – Christof Loy’s wacky rendition of a lesser known Rossini comic opera (Partying in L. A.: Machaidze, Gavanelli Romp in All-Star “Turco in Italia” – Los Angeles Opera, February 19, 2011) and the German translation of Offenbach’s “Perichole” (Komische Oper’s Impertinent, Perky “Perichole” – Berlin, May 28, 2011 ). I can add to this esteemed list Santa Fe Opera’s hilarious new production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Last Savage”.

[Below: two billionaires – the Maharajah (Thomas Hammons, left) and Mr Scattergood (Kevin Burdette) – make plans to marry the Maharajah’s son to Scattergood’s daughter; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Menotti’s comic opera, unknown to most opera audiences, contains a satire with a bite (though perhaps a love-bite) on 1960s-era American sophisticates. It debuted at Paris’ Opera Comique in 1963 and appeared at the New York Met in 1964, without being regarded as a success. Its appearance at the Spoleto Festival in Charlestown, South Carolina in the early 1980s caught the eye of Charles Mackay, general director of the Santa Fe Opera, who has made the case that Menotti’s comedy should be in opera’s performing repertory.

He assembled a team of production designers that brought forth a cohesive vision of the work. (It’s quite possible, as has been proven elsewhere, to select a team that looks good on paper, but whose collaboration yields sub-optimal results.)

Ned Canty was the stage director. For the scenic and costume design, Mackay enlisted Allen Moyer, fresh from the stylishly successful new production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” in the 2010 Santa Fe Opera Festival (see Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010). The Conductor was George Manahan. The production is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Menotti’s birth (he died at age 95) and the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Curtis Institute of Music are co-producers of the effort.

[Below: the Maharajah (Thomas Hammons) enlists his masons to build a wall through his grand hall; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The opera’s story line posits an arranged, cross-cultural marriage that would wed the American anthropology student Kitty Scattergood to the Maharajah’s son, Kodanda (Sean Panikkar), but neither party to the marriage is interested in carrying out their elders’ wishes. Kitty delays everything by demanding that she be able to complete her anthropology project – to find the last living noble savage, whom she suspects inhabits the Northern jungles of the Indian subcontinent.

The Maharanee (Jamie Barton), observing that Kitty’s anthropology project is delaying the ambitions of everyone, suggests that they merely hire someone to be a wildman that Kitty might find. Her servant Sardula (Jennifer Zetlan) who is loved by the Maharanee’s son, Kodanda (Sean Panikkar), suggests that Abdul (Daniel Okulitch), who is romantically pursuing her, should be hired as the Savage.

[Below: Sardula (Jennifer Zetlan, left) waits upon the Maharanee (Jamie Barton, seated) who provides her analysis of the situation to the Maharajah (Thomas Hammons, far right) and Mr Scattergood (Kevin Burdette, to Mr Hammon’s left).]

Abdul, with a sufficient cash incentive, agrees to allow his hair and fingernails to grow for six months, and is placed in a spot where he can be discovered, living as a savage, by Kitty. Brought back to the Maharajah’s court, she points out that she must take the Savage to America for proper scientific inspection by the anthropological community and her Vassar doctoral committee.

[Below: Abdul, the Last Savage (Daniel Okulitch, in cage, center) has been captured and is on display; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The ensuing act is about the Scattergood’s return to America with the Last Savage. Back in Chicago with the Savage, Kitty takes anthropologic research past the boundaries of which Vassar’s human subjects committee is likely to approve, and, in the course of providing the Savage with experiential information on the principles of human sexuality, she and the Savage fall in love. She civilizes him and fits him for custom-made suits. (This scene was written decades before Brendan Fraser’s memorable line in George of the Jungle – a film about another recently civilized savage – “George look good in Armani”.)

Kitty’s “reveal” of the Extreme Makeover of the Last Savage provides Menotti with an opportunity to ridicule certain artistic pretensions of the 1960s – the collections of beatnik poets, Warhol-inspired painters, and, the denizens of the lowest depths of Hell, composers of serial, 12-tone music (pace, all imitators of Alban Berg), especially when they are brought together in the cocktail parties of urban sophisticates in New York City or Chicago.

One suspects that at least some of the New York City sophisticates who attended the Met’s American premiere of Menotti’s work didn’t find the satire very funny, since it hit too close to the mark. (Whether that’s true or not, if the opera does achieve its deserved success in the 21st century, the stunned reaction of the 1964 New York audiences may well become a sturdy urban legend.) But this scene is a show-stopper, one of the funniest I’ve seen on the operatic stage.

Unfortunately, a 1960s Chicago cocktail party with the artist types mentioned above was too unnerving to the Savage, and he decided he would leave civilization entirely to reside again in the Indian jungle outback. (Don’t worry. There’s a third act, and everything works out well!)

[Below: a scene from your typical Chicago cocktail party, circa 1964; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The cast was a great one. The five “co-starring” artists were uniformly excellent, led by Kevin Burdette as Mr Scattergood, Thomas Hammons as the Maharajah, and Jamie Barton as the super-sized Maharanee,

Tenor Sean Panikkar, a Pennsylvania-born tenor of Sri Lankan heritage, as Kodanda and American soprano Jennifer Zetlan as Sardula were the conniving “other couple”. Both are “rising stars” with promising operatic careers.

[Below: Kodanda (Sean Panikkar, left) and Sardula (Jennifer Zetlan) are beneficiaries of the decision to undo an arranged marriage; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

In opera, the voice is the most important element in musical performance, but with large numbers of skilled operatic singers available, the ability to act is an important quality in making casting decisions as well. A third criterion, suggesting that operatic performance is becoming more like film, television and legitimate theater, is the physical appearance of the singers. Not every opera requires the singers to be buff products of gym regimens, but it  now happens more often than could ever have been imagined even in the mid-20th century, that operatic costume designers know how to emphasize what in 1930s cinema was referred to as “cheesecake” and “beefcake”.

Anna Christy has charmed her way through a variety of roles (see my reviews of her Lisette at The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part II: Gheorghiu and “Rondine” – November 25, 2007, her Blonde at Cornelius Meister’s Admirable “Abduction”: San Francisco Opera – October 11, 2009 and her Tytania at Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Chicago: Enchanting, Luminous, Hilarious – Lyric Opera, November 17, 2010), but that charm bubbles over in her role as Kitty Scattergood in her pink designer safari suit.

Daniel Okulitch is the type of baritone that inspires websites devoted to the physical attributes of several of opera’s male stars. He accommodated a Full Monty for Los Angeles audiences (see Dissecting “The Fly”: the American Premiere of Shore’s Opera in L.A. – September 7, 2008), so his attire in Santa Fe is modest in comparison.

[Below: the Last Savage (Daniel Okulitch, right) mates with the Vassar girl, Kitty Scattergood (Anna Christy); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

I obviously recommend this production for those able to get to the remaining performances at Santa Fe Opera’s 2011 Summer Festival, and look forward to its being scheduled in other cities.

In the Menotti centenary year, it is appropriate to give thought to the prodigious work of this composer, much of whose work is unfairly ignored.

For additional discussion of performances in which Anna Christy has appeared, see: Reflecting on Puccini’s “Rondine” and Missing “That 70’s Show”: S. F. “Ballo” — September 17, 2006.