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Just salvage

Santa Fe has done a brave and laudable thing is presenting the first major revival of The Last Savage in decades, and if the libretto were, perhaps, translated into Hindu, the production values, excellence of cast, and directorial choices could conceivably work their magic of, if not pulling a rabbit out of a hat, then at least charming a poisonous snake into submission.  

But the very mode of success of this production—still, a success d’estime and not, really the achievement of an enjoyable evening—raised some questions in my mind at least as to whether the cultural values embodied in the production could travel easily to many of our metropolitan centers, overcome as they are with the pall of political correctness.

Gian Carlo Menotti‘s story is very much of its time—or should I say, very much of the time of an older generation which saw the changes in the early 60′s, culturally and politically, as matter of condescension. It is basically My Man Godfrey, but on a global scale, and the it tells of an attempted arranged marriage between a wealthy American and Indian which goes awry when the American heiress falls in love with the low-caste “savage” she has been attempting to civilize.

The inherent story isn’t nasty or mean-spirited; Menotti clearly has some lovely morals to scatter about on how love should overcome economic barriers and even (to some extent) religious/national barriers (Kitty marries the Indian and goes to live in a cave, but at the end tells her father to start bringing in refrigerators and so on, and there”s no doubt how this will end up).

In a nutshell, Menotti feels that it is good and decent to cross barriers for romantic love, but he’s not one to advocate changing the relative value of the different cultures, and his stereotyped attitude towards men and women is just one instance of this.  Lest we consider him merely a prisoner of his own times, one need only think of Fidelio or, for that matter, My Fair Lady.

This attitude even more painfully obvious in the great party scene in Act II, where the Savage (Abdul – it kind of had to be, didn’t it?) is now being presented at a large cocktail party in Chicago. Menotti makes feeble and really rather embarassingly half-hearted attempts to crticize both the dominant society (military conscription, political campaigning) and then, having shown his “good faith” as a social critic of the status quo, goes after “modern” art in all of its forms—visual, poetic and musical, with a series of stereotypes: a scatter-paint type (in this production, made to look like a fat Warhol), a poet of two words (made to look like Ginsberg moving with a suppository —this isn”t “Howl,” but bowel), and of course the academic composer.

There were, of course, just these battles raging then, but Menotti’s slyness doesn’t even have the embarassment inherent in Norman Rockwell going after Mark Rothko; what you have is Bob Barker making fun of Ralph Richardson’s overnights in the Nielsen ratings.

You can see how difficult this would be to make come alive on stage. Director Ned Canty has taken, probably, the only avenue one can with this, which is to create a broad parody of the work which (hopefully) will make the audience forget both the tedium of the libretto and much of the music (although, truth be told, a number of the arias and duets are quite lovely in themselves, and show Menotti had lost nothing of a real melodic gift, no matter how conservative the idiom or how derivative the sources).

You can’t “ennoble” the Indians and keep them funny, and so in fact what you get is basically the Hindu version of Stepin’ Fetchit. There are a dozen Indian chorus guys, all scrawny, all wearing turbans and matching Depends (that’s just what it looks like, intentionally), with body suits to make them look tatooed all over, and with identical beards (on all 12) that make them look like the Smith brothers. They don”t have an XY chomosome, or for that matter three neurons, among them, and are cowardly and inefficient and barely human.

The Maharajah is supposed to be a pretentious fool, and (again) sexually sterile (that’s the key to the story—his one “son” of something like 28 women isn’t even his)—and the Maharanee is obese, lazy, and self- indulgent; she is a bit of an idiot savant because she plays the stock market and has Delphic answers to some of the dilemmas in the libretto, but she is hardly an example of non-Anglo womanhood.

The younger Indian couple are more palatable, but of course the son is half-American, and his beloved hasn’t much to do but be obedient and be loved. Wherever he could, Canty emphasized the grotesque characteristics—the Maharanee has to be wheeled in on a barrel and looks like a pneumatic doll; the Maharajah can’t even juggle two balls (sic).

Canty tries as hard as he can, I think, to even this up on the American side, though not with the main characters, who are played rather straight and endearingly for the audience. The great party scene takes a swipe at everything—it looks like a very bad staging from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along – and charity makes me believe that the extremely nasty view of homosexual men (the designers—who go well beyond anything in the score —and the waiters, who make their own sexuality clear by wiggling their asses and mincing around) is really just an attempt to say, “Look, I’m just trying to offend everyone.” But I suppose everyone has their limits, and I was less happy in the scene with all the religious breathren trying to convert Abdul (what a scene that would be today!) with the rabbi wearing a talis. Why? What else was he with the yarmulke?

Canty, to his credit, changes the ending slightly, and to everyone’s advantage—rather than ending with more and more American goods being brought into Adbul’s cave (as Menotti writes in the stage directions), Canty quickly changes the scene into a museum display of Abdul and Kitty in a diorama which modern school children are passing by, and if this doesn’t quite excuse three hours of outdated libretto, it shows a wit and snese of humor that are much needed to end the evening of over three hours.

I just don’t think you could get away with this in many cities. I really didn’t object, and if I didn’t laugh, I admired the attempt to solve the insoluble. But I suspect in a lot of places the Indian scenes would get (self) righteously booed off the stage, at the least. My view is that it’s to Santa Fe’s credit that they didn’t, but I never underestimate a subscriber to The New York Times.

It doesn’t really matter how deliberately Menotti is updating bel canto comic opera—that’s too obvious to need discussion, and beyond the plotting, it appears in everything from musical form (a patter song, for example, for Kitty the heiress’s father) to the soprano cadenzas, the distribution of parts (the second soprano—at the Met, the young Teresa Stratas) singing music less florid and a third below the prima donna), and the larger musical structures (though I confess to finding it quite charming that the lovely final duet is deliberately reminscent of Rosenkavalier‘s final duet).

John Guare remembered once being told as a young writer that you had to observe people closely and in all intense detail, in order to get “characters” on the page; if you start out only with your “imagination,” he was told, you only ended up with cartoon characters. I doubt that Menotti was ever given this advice, and certainly he never would have understood it, and at the heart of any Menotti work seems to be a series of cartoons.

You may find then effective (although I think even the Consul could do better with less overstatement, although I know others here I respect disagree), but they are never more than cartoons. Opera isn’t pure dramatic literature, obviously, and Norina isn’t supposed to be in A Doll’s House, but even the generalized opera chatacter, or the commedia dell’arte,  has to be anchored in an emotional matix of which we can each feel ourselves part. For a man who want to criticize academic composers, academicism is Menotti’s worst sin here.

Alan Moyer shows that he is once again one of our most brilliant stage designers in opera, and if there really is a single star who made the evening tolerable, it was he. He was endlessly inventive, full of unexpected visual jokes, luscious sets (on a budget), wonderful and evocative colors, all without descending to the trite.

Of the singers, much of the attention was on Daniel Okulitch, a tall, handsome strapping (bass?) baritone who was unclothed as much as humanly possible, and drew wolf whistles in Act III. He has the upper body of Johnny Weissmuller and the general stature of Max Baer, Jr., in case you were wondering.  You’d guess he was a swimmer specializing in the butterfly stoke to look at him (and if you pretend not to have these thoughts, you are a total liar), but he even looked more interesting in white tie and tails, rather like a muscular Humphrey Bogart.  Most importantly, as in everything I have seen him in before, he is a real singing actor, and gave a genuine “performance,” acting and not attitudinizing. He may not have the most luxurious of voices, but he is a commited singing actor, not just another “barihunk.”

Sean Pannikar, as the young heir to the Indian throne (I believe he is Sri Lankan in background?) has never really impressed me with the vocal goods, and I still don’t hear much body in the voice at all. The tenor was one of Opera News‘ Monthly singers a while back, which is usually the kiss of death, but his diction was very clear and he has improved greatly as an actor.

Anna Christy, heard more often at the ENO than here in the U.S., was fine on stage and in a range repeatedly hitting the acuti, including Ebs and an E, although I think the voice more or less anonymous at this point. Kevin Burdette (who for some reason didn’t get a biography) was first rate, I thought, at Mr. Scattergood, and I thought Jennifer Zeitlan as Sardula (the second donna) lovely in her aria.

The orchestra was conducted by George Manahan, late of City Opera, and he got lots of approval from the orchestra, perhaps as much for his very incisive conducting (much better than Schippers in the prima, if you ask me) as perhaps for his travails at City.

Photos: Ken Howard.

30 comments

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    But this was already published on Opera L, minus the photos.

  • louannd says:

    Thank you Maria, and I hope you had a GREAT time in Santa Fe!

  • mrmyster says:

    Maria Malcontent is very very generous. I am completely cynical about
    Last Sauvage, as anyone should be. It is a vapid piece of nonsense — even
    the corny jokes and running gags are thrice clicheed and threadbare. The
    cocktail party caricatures of the guests are an embarrassment. Somewhere
    I read that other opera companies may be picking up this production? Why?
    To make it work, of course, you have to have an audience that is willing and
    will encourage the whole thing by laughing heartily all evening, applauding
    everything lustily, even ending with a standing ovation — but I warn other
    impresarios, unless you import that West Texas Oil audience you ain’t
    gonna git that kind of reception; probably nobody E. of the Mississippi River
    will applaud any of it. Now there is a politically incorrect comment, for which
    I am unapologetic. What a brainless evening, what a clever and creative
    production and how very unnecessary, when you consider all the really fine operatic repertory that is out there, which SFEOp has not yet done.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      I agree that the opera has not worn well and Mr.Mystery’s comments about the party scene are as negative as we deemed it at the MET premiere. But at least this new production looks fine and has not done any harm to the opera.

  • Hans Lick says:

    I did not find this a comprehensible or, indeed, readable review. Perhaps if the writer had given us a synopsis beforehand (I don’t know the story of the opera and neither does 95 percent of the opera-going public), we would know what on earth she was getting at with lines like:

    “Lest we consider him merely a prisoner of his own times, one need only think of Fidelio or, for that matter, My Fair Lady.” Are these examples of women not being typical of their creators’ times? True enough of Leonore. But the author’s point is not clear at all, perhaps because we don’t know what, in the opera under discussion, is being alluded to.

    or

    “There were, of course, just these battles raging then, but Menotti’s slyness doesn’t even have the embarassment inherent in Norman Rockwell going after Mark Rothko; what you have is Bob Barker making fun of Ralph Richardson’s overnights in the Nielsen ratings.”

    Is this an attempt at wit? (Do let us know next time you’re thinking of making a joke, MM.) Did Norman Rockwell go after Rothko? I missed that. Who is Bob Barker? Did he make fun of Richardson? Was Richardson in the Nielsen’s ratings? Wha?

    At least when the Times’s movie critic refers to songs by rock bands I’ve never heard of, I know he’s referring to rock bands I’ve never heard of.

    • lorenzo.venezia says:

      comparing Okulitch’s upper body to johnny weismuller or max baer jr. !?!? they were long forgotten when this opera was new… certainly didn’t help me as a visual reference, and I’m old.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor says:



        • Ruxton says:

          Mr Okulitch has a very nice speaking voice which goes along with everything else.

          Mr Weissmuller was one of my first loves even though he was in black and white and twenty feet tall. Maureen O’Sullivan was not so much a fan and actually complained that she frequently saw way too much of Johnny W due to the fact he enjoyed showing it off. Sigh- if I had only seen that too, I’m sure I would have loved it too!

      • Maria Malcontent says:

        You didn’t know The Beverly Hillbillies?? Max Baer Jr. was Jetho -- it was his father whom you may have been thinking of!

      • ianw2 says:

        There is this amazing thing called Google now, which should answer your query. I’m young and a furriner and even I knew who Johnny Weismuller was and, more importantly, don’t need to be intimately acquainted with the oeuvre of Baer, Jr to appreciate the point the reviewer was trying to make.

    • DonCarloFanatic says:

      Norman Rockwell’s send-up of Rothko:

      [img]http://parterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/rockwell_connoisseur.jpg[/img]

  • Henry Holland says:

    whether the cultural values embodied in the production could travel easily to many of our metropolitan centers, overcome as they are with the pall of political correctness

    Yeah, those damn metro centers that don’t find tired, dated stereotypes from the late 50′s/early 60′s funny or even ironically “hip” any more, damn them!

    I was less happy in the scene with all the religious breathren trying to convert Abdul (what a scene that would be today!) with the rabbi wearing a talis. Why? What else was he with the yarmulke?

    Ah, the pall of political correctness that overcame you there.

    But I suspect in a lot of places the Indian scenes would get (self) righteously booed off the stage, at the least. My view is that it’s to Santa Fe’s credit that they didn’t, but I never underestimate a subscriber to The New York Times

    Well, *I* suspect that you’re projecting your animus towards those horrendous PC police, ready to disrupt good ol’ fashioned American prejudice at the drop of a hat. That would be the PC police that only seems to really exist in the imagination of right wing places like World Net Daily or National Review Online.

    probably nobody E. of the Mississippi River
    will applaud any of it

    Hey! Don’t lump Los Angeles and San Francisco and Portland and Seattle in with that! :-)

    What a brainless evening, what a clever and creative
    production and how very unnecessary, when you consider all the really fine operatic repertory that is out there, which SFEOp has not yet done

    Exactly.

    Here’s Santa Fe’s 2012 season:

    Puccini: Tosca. New Production
    Bizet: The Pearl Fishers. First Performance by The Santa Fe Opera. New Production
    Rossini: Maometto II. World Premiere of the New Critical Edition. New Production
    Szymanowski: King Roger. First Performance by The Santa Fe Opera. New Production
    Strauss: Arabella. New Production

    • Maria Malcontent says:

      I know that I was trespassing myself on PC -- ness with the comment about the rabbi, but I thought I should admit it for what it’s worth. I am actually a little less than thrilled about next year, although I recognize that lots of companies are cutting back, and Santa Fe in contrast is still quite adventurous. The Rossini appeals to me, but other than that I think I would withhold judgment on going -- I saw King Roger at Bard (in an awful Polish production) and then again, luckily, this past year in Bonn, in a much better production, and while I think it’s great that they are doing it, I am not sure I’d race there for it. I agree that there are so MANY operas out there -- I would give an arm (but not one of mine) for Rimsky’s Sevillia (not done in over 100 years, and an incredible score, with about 30 minutes of excerts extant with Lisitsian et all from about 1950), and I would love a Weinberg opera -- a fascinating composer for me -- and, staying with W for a moment, Weingartner.

      By the way, many thanks to James for such a great job in doing a layout on this.

  • Camille says:

    I want to see Roberta Peters in a pith helmet, just one more time.

    I’ll never forget the moment I opened Opera News to find Miss Peters ‘alla cacciatore’. It shocked me beyond all saying!

    • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

      Now on Ebay for $40:
      [img]http://parterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/050240.jpg[/img]

  • stevey says:

    Ahhhh! Welcome back, Babs!!! :-)

  • filsdesparias says:

    The language is Hindi, not Hindu. I hope it’s not Politically Correct of me to point that out. As others have pointed out above, this review is a mess.

  • Maria Malcontent says:

    I don’t want to get into a position of ‘defending’ my review -- everyone is entitled to their own opinion and no amount of insistance ever turned an opinion, any opinion, into fact, as we have frequently seen here and elsewhere. I do appreciate the correction of Hindi, for what it’s worth. But I hardly think the review is a ‘mess’. My objective when I write is to place the opera ‘happening’ mostly in a social context of some kind because that’s what interests me most about opera (aside from high notes). I make certain assumptions about the cultural familiarity of the reader with what I am going to say, or that the reader will ‘look it up’. Opera is nowadays for me most interesting in terms of being set within a cultural/political context, past or present, ‘domestic’ or ‘foreign’, and so that’s the way I write and in fact how I think about the art form. It’s not for everyone, as I recognize from responses from a lot of people, and yet there are those who think that way, or have that interest and that is the interest that I am trying to work within. All best