Kitty Scattergood is no Mimi. Abdul, heaven bless him, is no Rodolfo. Santa Fe Opera has set several unlikely pairs of lovers on stage this season. The most delightful arrive in Gian Carlo Menottis opera buffa, The Last Savage. The most touching can be no other than Puccinis poor Parisians in La Bohème.
Opera lovers all over the world know and care about Mimi and Rodolfo. They are the quintessential starving artists: Rodolfo the aspiring writer and Mimi the expiring, tubercular embroiderer.
Based on a story published in 1848, La Bohème premiered in 1896 and was considered sensational because of its subject matter, in short low life and free love. Only when Arturo Toscanini and Enrico Caruso championed the opera in America did La Bohème surge in popularity. It is now considered one of the greatest love stories ever put to music.
Santa Fes 2007 production was so seamless and seductive it has been remounted this summer. Director Paul Curran and his creative team have made an already tight script and score glow like a warm candle. Scene changes are so swift, if you look away for a second, youll miss the transformation of Rodolfos claustrophobic garret into a lively Parisian street.
The composer didnt waste a moment either in telling the story. Mimi (Ana María Martínez) and Rodolfo (David Lomelí) fall in love quickly. The rest of the opera spins out their tragic affair, contrasting it with the hot energy generated by Marcello (Corey McKern) and Musetta (Heidi Stober). Kevin Knights costumes may be realistic, but his sets are a marvel of modern concept and design.
As thoroughly as you know the story, the ending is so musically and dramatically perfect that opera fans are known to weep every time.
Theres no weeping for The Last Savage or its ditzy comic heroine Kitty Scattergood (Anna Christy) or its equally nutty hero Abdul (Daniel Okulitch). Created by Gian Carlo Menotti in the early 1960s, this satirical take on contemporary culture and class is laugh-out-loud funny from the start.
Director Ned Canty and his creative team havent missed a detail in the Santa Fe production. Bubbly as Noel Coward, witty as Gilbert and Sullivan, and musically compelling as Mozart, Savage may just be the sleeper of the 2011 season.
Its no mystery why Savage has been dormant since it premiered in Paris late in 1963 right after the Kennedy assassination. A few months later it opened at the MET when no one was in a mood to laugh at anything. But time has passed, and distance offers the great gift of detachment. Kudos to Santa Fe Opera for bringing this sparkling satire to the stage especially in Menottis centenary year.
Savage centers on marital matchmaking between a wealthy Indian and an American billionaire whose daughter, as I said at the beginning, is no Mimi. Kitty is a spoiled college girl who wants to achieve fame as an anthropologist. Her goal: find and civilize the last savage on Earth. Ouch. Being slightly smarter than Kitty, the adults find a servant to play a fake savage. Kitty discovers, civilizes and presents him to Chicago society. Can love be far behind?
The opera begins in an Indian palace, shifts to a Chicago penthouse, and ends in a jungle. Scenic Designer Allen Moyer simplifies these challenges by creating a stage within a stage thats easily transformed. Each location is identified with huge signs that can be manipulated. During a playful overture, tattooed, semi-nude servants haul off big ice-cream colored letters that spell Rajaputana. Theres a joke here.
Choreographer Seán Curran infuses wit into every movement, an eyebrow here, a little finger there. When servants split a table in two, build a wall or carry luggage, they serve in effect as keystone cops. Other Hollywood references underscore Menottis love of film.
Above all, Menotti aims at pretentiousness of any kind, and herein lies the satire. He skewered fashionable 60s trends in contemporary art, poetry and music, and they still resonate. But opera is grounded in music, and Menottis gifts follow the Puccini-Verdi tradition melodic and singer-friendly. To mark it as modern, however, Menotti incorporated a variety of styles.
There are Mozartean ensembles, Pucciniesque arias, a Rossiniette overture, and one perfectly timed atonal clip for a quick jab at Modernism. Its Menottis music that keeps this compact comic opera on a frothy course to a marvelous, witty conclusion.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.