It was only four days before curtain time, but the Metropolitan Opera's brave new production of Mozart's Così Fan Tutte was trembling and acold. At rehearsal, the singers were tired and downcast. Stage Director Alfred Lunt was slumped in a front-row seat, clasping his head. From the pit came the low, gruff voice of Veteran Conductor Fritz Stiedry: "Alfred! Be very angry. Make a big scene."
Lunt began working himself into a scene. He uncoiled from his seat, strode onstage and eyed the silent singers. "You've forgotten everything I've told you," he said, with cold distinctness. "Even being opera singers is no excuse for your acting . . . You look like bowls of cold, rancid oatmeal."
It worked like a tonic. Last week first-nighters saw a production of Mozart's comedy of 18th century manners that made Met history.
Six Easy Lessons. When General Manager Rudolf Bing first asked Actor Lunt to direct Così, he told him that all he had to do was to make it "light, gay and elegant." Protested Lunt: "You cannot get those opera singers up on their points with six lessons from Madame LaZonga."* But once he had listened to Mozart's elegantly subtle score (unheard at the Met since 1928), Lunt accepted the challenge.
The story, titled in English, Women Are Like That, is pure meringue. An old cynic named Don Alfonso bets two naive young friends that their fiancées, "the firmest of characters," can be cozened into being untrue. Sure enough, the young blades disguise themselves and, ably abetted by the old cynic and the masquerading ladies' maid, Despina, win each other's sweethearts. The gentlemen's bittersweet despair lasts just long enough to round out an opera, and everybody ends up in the right arms.
The problem, as Lunt's practiced eye saw it, was "taking the affectations of our ancestors and making them endearing." He laid out his action first with the help of some young Broadway actors. When he finally got a chance to drill the singers, he had most of their movements plotted like a minuet ("If you beat your breast, I'll kill you!"). All told, he had the cast onstage for 17 hours of instructions, cajolings and threats.
That was only part of his job, as he saw it. He also rushed around in the Christmas crush, getting exactly the right kind of wine glasses; he set his famed actress wife Lynn Fontanne to sewing lace hankies for "my girls," later, sent her backstage to perk up one discouraged singer with a little flattery. He huddled for hours with Designer Rolf Gerard on how to frame chamber-sized Così in the yawning spaces of the Met's big stage. Gerard's solution: a chamber-sized stage contrived by drapes and latticed arches, brilliantly simple sets in handsome pastels and white.
A New Regular. When the curtain went up, Stage Director Lunt himself pranced out in maroon livery and powdered wig. He cleared his throat commandingly, waved a couple of latecomers to their seats, then went through the stage business of lighting a row of electric footlights with a taper, all to great applause.