The Last Savage

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The Last Savage is an opera in three acts by composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Menotti wrote his own libretto, originally in the Italian language (L'ultimo selvaggio). The opera was translated into French (Le dernier sauvage) by Jean-Pierre Marty for the work's world premiere performance at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 21 October 1963. George Mead translated the work into English for the opera's American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera the following year.

Following the premiere, The Last Savage was harshly ridiculed by French music critics, continuing a succession of critical failures for Menotti which began with The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore (1956). The French daily newspaper Le Figaro went so far as to describe the work as "A Misery".[1]

Performance history[edit]

Despite the response from the French public, Menotti hoped that the opera would get a warmer reception at its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on 23 January 1964.[1] This presentation boasted a highly elaborate set by Beni Montresor, star billing, and was performed in English using a translation by George Mead. Conductor Thomas Schippers led the Met cast, which included George London as Abdul, Roberta Peters as Kitty, Teresa Stratas as Sardula, Nicolai Gedda as Kodanda, Ezio Flagello as Maharajah, Lili Chookasian as Maharanee, and Morley Meredith as Scattergood. Though the quality of the singing was praised by critics, New York's response to the opera was negative.

Four months later, the work was first performed in the original Italian at La Fenice in Venice on 15 May 1964 with conductor Carlo Franci, John Reardon as Abdul, Helen Mané as Kitty, Maliponte as Sardula, Roberto Merolla as Kodanda, Angelo Nosotti as Scattergood, and Paolo Washington as the Marajah.

Italy's reception of the La Fenice production was lukewarm and the opera was not performed again for many years. Reactions from critics internationally commented on the opera's poor libretto. At that time avant-garde music was in vogue and critics felt Menotti's conservative style of composition was overly sentimental and trite; although a few of the arias and a septet in the work were generally praised. Several critics commented that the music failed to live up to the quality of earlier Menotti operas like The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954) and The Consul (1950). In response to this reaction to his opera, Menotti stated:

"To say of a piece that it is harsh, dry, acid and unrelenting is to praise it. While to call it sweet and graceful is to damn 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."[2]

A revised version of the opera was given by the Hawaii Opera Theatre in 1973 with John Reardon as Abdul (repeating the role he created in Italian at La Fenice), Joanna Bruno as Kitty, Gary Glaze as Kodanda, and David Clartworthy as Mr. Scattergood. Menotti directed. Critics seemed to like this version better. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin said it was "packed with solid, wonderful, memorable music" and that John Reardon's performance was "simply flawless." [3]

The opera was revived in 1981 at the Spoleto Festival USA in honor of the composer's 70th birthday. The production was led by conductor Christian Badea and starred Suzanne Hong as Kitty.[4]

It was presented as part of the 2011 festival season by the Santa Fe Opera under conductor George Manahan directed by Ned Canty, with Anna Christy as Kitty, Daniel Okulitch as Abdul, Jennifer Zetlan as Sardula, Sean Panikkar as Kodanda, Thomas Hammons as Maharajah, Jamie Barton as Maharanee, and Kevin Burdette as Scattergood.[2] Critical reception of the production was positive, with several critics calling for a re-examination of the piece.[5]

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere cast,
21 October 1963
(Conductor:Serge Baudo)
Abdul baritone Gabriel Bacquier
Kitty soprano Mady Mesplé
Sardula soprano Adriana Maliponte
Prince Kodanda tenor Michele Molese
Scattergood bass Xavier Depraz
The Marajah bass Charles Clavensy

Synopsis[edit]

Time: the 1960s
Place: Rajaputana, India and Chicago, USA

Kitty, a young student of anthropology at Vassar College, arrives in India in search of the earth's "last savage" — the chosen topic for her senior thesis. She is accompanied by her parents, an American millionaire and his wife, who are more interested in finding Kitty a husband than in their daughter's research. Kitty's parents attempt to entice Kitty into marrying the Marajah's son, the Crown Prince of Rajaputana, but she refuses to do so until she has found her savage. Her parents accordingly hire the peasant Abdul to pretend to be a savage for $100,000. Kitty is fooled by this ruse and accordingly captures Abdul. She plans to take Abdul back to Chicago where she intends to present him to the scientific community and put him on display in an exhibit at the New York Zoo.

On the flight back to New York, Kitty becomes quite attached to Abdul and decides to keep him for herself. In Chicago she attempts to civilize him without success and Abdul ends up ruining a cocktail party that Kitty hosts with several important guests in attendance. Abdul flees the ruined party and is not found by Kitty until several months later when she discovers him in a jungle cave. Kitty declares her love for Abdul and decides to move into the cave with him. The opera ends with the couple in each other's arms while Kitty's father's servants deliver modern appliances such as a television and a refrigerator to the cave.

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ a b "Opera: A Banal Savage", Time, 31 January 1964
  2. ^ a b Barry Singer, "Salvaging the Savaged". Opera News 75 (11). May 2011. 
  3. ^ Extract from a review in the Honolulu Star Bulletin, February 1973 on The Santa Fe Opera's website
  4. ^ Edward Rothstein, "Menotti: Is He the Last Savage in Worlds of Arts and Finance?", The New York Times, 28 May 1981
  5. ^ Anthony Tommasini, , "Love Beats Science in a Spoof by Menotti", The New York Times, 14 August 2011

Sources