Well, finally, the curse that’s been following Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1963 “grand opera buffa,” The Last Savage, has been lifted. Just take a look at the Santa Fe Opera’s glittering, rambunctious new production. Charles MacKay, the SFO’s general director and a long-time Menotti booster, stuck his neck out a mile in scheduling this critically denounced, frankly mindless confection, in the firm belief it deserves another chance. And ecco—another triumph of faith over reason!
Menotti won a commission from the Paris Opéra for the piece, wrote his own Italian book and lyrics, had them translated into Le dernier sauvage, and got the opera onto the stage of the Opéra-Comique. That’s where all the trouble started. Despite some starry casting (including Gabriel Bacquier and Mady Mesplé), the critics called it “a misery,” and that was that pour le pauvre sauvage. Still, Menotti had powerful friends who stood up for the unfortunate fellow, and the following year the savage made it to the Met.
Again with powerhouse casting: George London in the title role as Abdul; Roberta Peters as Kitty, the intrepid Vassar would-be anthropologist determined to capture "the last savage" for science; Nicolai Gedda as the Indian prince her papa wants her to wed; Thomas Schippers in the pit. But once again, the savage got savaged. "Banal" was about the nicest word critics uttered.
Nothing daunted, Menotti saw the opera staged at La Fenice with Santa Fe's own John Reardon as Abdul. Yet again, the critics yawned. Eventually in 1981, revised and revived, Savage turned up in Charleston, SC, when Menotti staged it as part of his Spoleto USA season. Some critics still went ho-hum, but audiences loved it, as did MacKay, a key administrator for that festival at the time. And then it sat and sat—forgotten, but not gone.
Until last Saturday night, that is, when an avid SFO audience just about hugged it to death. Forget about the ramshackle book, the twee lyrics, the stereotypical characters. This wildly entertaining show knows all about how to make a silk purse out of, well, a you-know-what. Credit No. 1: MacKay’s gutsiness for laying it on the line with the most lavish, totally out-of-sight comedy the company’s mounted since that jaw-dropping Countess Maritza back in 1995.
Credit No. 2: director Ned Canty, a chap who knows how to out-buffa buffa. When you’re supposed to be in India, why make do with just two little brown men frisking around the stage in loincloths when you can have, say, 17? Why not conjure up the most outrageous jungle since Dunsinane? And let’s prop up that totally dated North Shore culture-phonies satire in act two with dancing, prancing waiters and a King Kong skyline. Righto—too much is never enough.
In the pit, George Manahan makes Menotti’s lively, lyrical score sound almost as good as Bernstein—almost. Anna Christy’s bright-voiced Kitty smacks those top notes right out of the house. As Abdul, Daniel Okulitch plays the put-upon then wised-up savage with energy to spare; his act one soliloquy tickles the heart.
The rest of the very large cast capers and warbles amiably: Sean Panikkar as the prince; Kevin Burdette as Scattergood, Kitty’s squillionaire papa; Thomas Hammons as the maharajah and Jamie Barton, the droll Marthe in this season’s Faust, as his voluminous maharanee; Jennifer Zetlan as Sardula, the prince’s love interest—plus 18 named minor roles played excellently by members of the apprentice corps. Allen Moyer’s charming sets and dozens of bright costumes fill the bill, as does Seán Curran’s jolly choreography and Rick Fisher’s lighting.
The verdict? This show’s a keeper. If only Menotti had written in a cameo for Carol Channing.
The Last Savage
Wednesday, July 27
Through Aug. 25
Santa Fe Opera
301 Opera Drive