Jennifer Zetlan (Sardula), Jamie Barton (Maharanee), Kevin Burdette (Mr. Scattergood) and Thomas Hammons (Maharajah) in the Santa Fe Opera’s The Last Savage
After the grinding low gear of Vivaldi’s Griselda, the Santa Fe Opera shifted into high on Friday night with Menotti’s The Last Savage and offered its audience a smooth and joyous ride.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Menotti’s birth, and Santa Fe is celebrating with one of the Italian-American composer’s lesser-performed works. Why it’s not more popular is a mystery. It’s a comedy with chipper and lyrical music and plenty of laughs (which Friday night’s audience generously and loudly contributed).
Maybe the always-conservative composer offended important people in the world of music with his sharp jabs at modern art in its various modes. Or maybe, as Santa Fe’s Michael Clive writes in his program notes, in the premiere year of 1964, with the nation mourning John F. Kennedy and the Cold War intensifying, “New York opera-goers were in no mood for a humorous critique of Western cultural foibles and bourgeois capitalism that led many of them to the opera house in the first place.”
There are plenty of targets in The Last Savage. An Indian maharajah and an American millionaire cynically try to arrange a marriage between the maharajah’s son and the millionaire’s daughter, an arrangement that will be of benefit to both wealthy men. The daughter, a spoiled rich girl, has other ideas: She’s convinced that a wild man, the last savage, is lurking in the Indian jungle and she hopes to capture him, tame him and exhibit him, thus gaining worldwide fame as an anthropologist.
The trouble is, there’s no last savage. So, to please her and win her agreement to the marriage arrangement, the maharajah and the millionaire secretly hire a poor young Indian man to go into the jungle and pretend to be a wild man.
Just about everybody (there are plenty of subsidiary figures) is ridiculous — a notable exception being the faux wild man. Menotti’s sharpest jabs come in Act 2. The tamed savage is being exhibited at a Chicago cocktail party filled with avant-garde arts pretenders, including a painter with Andy Warhol hair. Modern visual art, modern poetry and modern music receive body blows in Menotti’s text and music.
In true comic-opera tradition, the various plot entanglements are untangled at the end, with the rich girl and the savage paired off. She agrees to live in his jungle cave, though Menotti somewhat cynically hints that the noble savage will eventually be corrupted by modern society, too.
Menotti’s music is a pleasure throughout. I was particularly taken by the overture, which was bright and witty, as well as many of the lyrical vocal numbers. There’s one obvious salute to Mozart and Da Ponte and The Marriage of Figaro. In one scene, the millionaire discovers that he is actually the father of the maharajah’s son, who is thus the prospective bride’s brother. The kinship with the scene in which Figaro discovers that he is Marcellina’s son is unmistakable and is referred to musically, in style if not literally, by Menotti.
Conductor George Manahan led a bright performance by the Santa Fe Opera orchestra, and a musically and visually appealing, stagewise cast brought the work to sparkling life. The cast list is very long. A highlight was the exceptional performance of Daniel Okulitch as the last savage (Okulitch has a wonderful comic sense as well as an attractive voice). Other important roles were taken by Anna Christy as the daughter, Jennifer Zetlan as a maidservant, Thomas Hammons as the maharajah, Jamie Barton as his wife (one of many), Sean Panikkar as his son, and Kevin Burdette as the millionaire.
Ned Canty’s clever direction was a major factor in the evening’s success (though Act 2 became a little too manic for my taste). Set and costume designer Allen Moyer and choreographer Sean Curran were equally clever. Some nervous audience members may have thought that the production edged uncomfortably close to political incorrectness — but laughed anyway.