By Patricia H. Kushlis
When I was Executive Director of the Hellenic American Union in Athens, Greece, I had the opportunity to arrange and moderate a talk in January 1984 – or actually a panel discussion –on opera that featured Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer himself, and his work. I also attended a lunch in his honor shortly thereafter hosted by US Ambassador Monteagle Stearns and his wife Toni at the Ambassador’s Residence.
Menotti was in Athens at the time directing an opera at the Εθνική Λυρική Σκηνή (the Greek National Opera). He was just as engaging, charming and irreverent in person as was Wednesday night's performance of his 1963 work, "The Last Savage,” at The Santa Fe Opera.
When "The Last Savage" premiered at the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1963 and then at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1964 - it bombed: despite its All Star Met cast. The opera then lay dead and seemingly buried for years. The prolific Menotti continued to compose, write libretti for and direct many more works. “The Last Savage” was resurrected in Honolulu in 1973 where, a decade later, it fared much better. Then back to the drawer. That the Santa Fe Opera included it in its current season is a tribute to General Director Charles MacKay who himself had worked on one of the productions, had known Menotti, and decided to give it another try. (Photo left: Anna Christie as Kitty, Dan Okulitch as Abdul (in cage) and dancers. Photo by Ken Howard).
In answer to the negative reviews in 1964 Menotti responded: “To say of a piece that it is harsh, dry, acid and unrelenting is to praise it. For better or for worse, in ‘The Last Savage’ I have dared to do away completely with fashionable dissonance, and in a modest way, I have endeavored to rediscover the nobility of gracefulness and the pleasure of sweetness.”
Well yes; and well no.
“The Last Savage” is, for the most part wonderfully lyrical and melodic. Its rhythms are complex and pleasing. Atonality and dissonance are used sparingly but to great sardonic effect. It’s not as if Menotti didn’t know how to use these twentieth century musical modalities – rather he – more than most other composers of his generation knew when to use them. And like Bernstein, when not.
This hilarious story moves
The opera itself is in three acts and all told lasts nearly three hours but those hours fly by. Two acts (I and III) are set somewhere in northern India where a local Maharajah and his hefty official wife – the Maharanee - reign. (The Maharajah has a total of 27 wives but the others are – he tells us - concubines.) (Jennifer Zetlan as Sardula, Jamie Garton as the Maharanee, KEvin Burdette as Mr. Scattergood and Thomas Hammons as the Maharajah. photo by Ken Howard)
The second act takes place in the United States. My research tells me that Menotti placed Act II in New York – but the Santa Fe Opera took liberties with the American setting and moved it –effectively – to CHICAGO (neon lights and all).
A large banner carried by minimally clothed paper-cut-out-thin South Asian swamis clad only in stylized white turbans, loin-cloths and body tattoos whose very appearances - not to mention backbreaking “dancing” style - provided their own form of comic relief especially when they suddenly emerged as potted jungle plants later in the production. (CHICAGO and cast photo by Ken Howard)
But wait. . .
As the first act opens, we find ourselves in Rajaputana – Menotti’s name for his mythical Indian setting. We are escorted there by the banner-carrying swamis.(Photo left: Maharajah and swamis, photo by Ken Howard) Rajaputana is shortened to Raja in the final act. Now this may mean nothing to most people (including critics and commentators I’ve read), but Menotti – who surely knew the meaning of the word “putana” in both Hindi and Italian – chose it carefully as a less than nice descriptor for this mythical kingdom near the Himalayas where Kitty, the blonde heroine, a Vassar anthropology major dressed - in the Santa Fe Opera production - in a pale pink cross between a safari outfit and a 1963’s pants suit had come to find "The Last Savage."A project for her senior thesis.
Kitty is accompanied in this questionable adventure by Mr. Scattergood, her indulgent wealthy, businessman father clad in gray suit and white pith helmet – who in his own day, we learn near the end, had had a secret youthful foreign adventure of his own.
(Photo left Anna Christie as Kitty and photo right Anna Christie as Kitty and Kevin Burdette as Mr. Scattergood by Ken Howard)
This opera is filled with various feline forms and references - cats – large and small - from Kitty herself to Sardula, the maid servant in the Maharajah's court. In fact, "The Last Savage" comes complete with a bevy of jungle animals – from a stuffed alligator that at one point Kitty tows across the stage on a rope to a multitude of stuffed lions and tigers. (Photo left Sean Panikkar as Kodanda and Jennifer Zetlan as Sardula; photo right Anna Christie as Kitty with stuffed aligator on a leash. Photos by Ken Howard)
The rhyming libretto
Although Menotti normally wrote in English, he wrote “The Last Savage” in Italian but then insisted that the translations in French and English also rhyme –a challenge for the translators.
Here’s just one example:
“Wiser men from king to peasant only gamble on the present. What may happen by and by only fools will prophesy.”
For the Gilbert & Sullivan fans among us, cadences of Menotti’s words throughout this work are sometimes reminiscent of “I am the model of a very modern major general. . .” from none other than "The Pirates of Penzance."
An Opera before Its Time?
In retrospect, it seems to me that this was an opera composed well before its time. It is a love story with a twentieth century twist, a comic drama complete with perceptive digs at the society of its day – from America’s feuding religious luminaries, fat-cat (more cats) Republican businessmen and period socialites (meow) to overbearing and oh-so-snotty musicians performing ephemeral screeching, finger-nail-across-the-chalkboard kinds of chamber music and visual “artists” dumping paint on canvas by machine and calling it art. Menotti, seemingly, spared no one – here or abroad. (Photo left of cast by Ken Howard).
Yet “The Last Savage” is not vicious and it reeks with human nature. Likewise, the dark drama of a "Faust," "La Boheme" or "Wozzeck" it is not - nor is it meant to be. If, however, dark tear-jerkers are what opera means to you, then by all means stay home and let someone else have your seat because if the July 27th performance is indicative of “The Last Savage’s” audience appeal you won’t be missed.
In the end, “The Last Savage” is just plain funny – and its satirical characterizations often still reverberate today. The singers were wonderful and well cast, the sets and costumes inventive and effective, the dancers amazing and the music hummable. And from the audience comments I overheard at the water cooler during intermissions and on the way out after the final curtain call, this production is a winner.
Kudos to the Santa Fe Opera for bringing Menotti's version of "Cats" back to life. For those who think opera should be fun and fanciful too - enjoy the show. It sparkles.
"The Last Savage," with music and libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti (assisted in the English version by George Mead) continues Aug. 5, 11, 18 and 25. For tickets, call 505-986-5900 or 800-280-4654, and as the Santa Fe New Mexican reviewer advises, quickly.
(Photo credits: Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera, 2011)