The centennial of Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) will pass unnoticed by most opera companies, but the Santa Fe Opera pays tribute with a work very different from the post-Puccini melodramas for which he is best known. The Last Savage, originally written in Italian, had its 1963 premiere as Le Dernier Sauvage at Paris’s Opéra Comique, came to New York’s Metropolitan in English the following year and has rarely been heard from since. To say it demonstrates that Menotti had a sense of humour would be a gross understatement, especially given the myriad gags it stimulates for Ned Canty’s rollicking new production.
Scattergood, a Chicago tycoon, wants to marry his daughter Kitty to the son of an Indian maharaja. But she insists on finishing her anthropological studies first, which involve capturing a primitive human being. Enter Abdul, a young Indian whom Scattergood surreptitiously induces to impersonate the sought-after savage. Wondering how to behave, Abdul is told to beat his fists against his chest. “Like Hollywood?” he asks and, sure enough, we later see him atop a Chicago skyscraper.
A central party scene is over the top in its satire, as Abdul is both paraded before society and exposed to its culture, including competing religions. But the scene also includes – in an amusing dig at the modernistic style Menotti shunned – a sample of “new music”, which leaves Abdul cold. Menotti’s own style is abundantly tuneful but also has an edge that sometimes brings to mind the neo-classicism of Stravinsky as the music blossoms into full-blown arias and ingeniously crafted ensembles.
From the first appearance of a sparsely dressed crew of male Indians, who move props around while gyrating in Oriental dance style, to the final scene depicting the jungle cave of Abdul and Kitty, now a couple, as a museum exhibit (sets and costumes by Allen Moyer), the production never misses a comic trick. Anna Christy, erupting in a barrage of coloratura at the slightest pretext, is a delight as Kitty, and Daniel Okulitch gives a he-man performance as Abdul. Sean Panikkar sings handsomely as Kodanda, the maharajah’s son originally destined for Kitty. And Jennifer Zetlan makes a high point of the fine aria in which Sardula, Abdul’s former girlfriend, agonises over how to tell Abdul she loves Kodanda. Kevin Burdette gives a droll performance as Scattergood. The expert conductor is George Manahan. The Last Savage will never replace The Marriage of Figaro in the canon of comic operas, but in Santa Fe it has a lot more laughs.