Ethington’s ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ Shines With Mozart Score, Woodstock Vibe

November 25, 2013 / by / 0 Comment

Review by Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
Photos by Alexis Bolze

There’s a caveat in going to see “Cosi fan tutte,” the Mozart comic opera now playing at Ethington Theatre, and it’s this: If you’re not careful, you might miss the music.

The direction given by Dean Claude Pensis of the College of Arts and Production is almost too good for its own good, but that’s not a complaint. Pensis has cleverly set “Cosi” in that period of the late 1960s and early ’70s when America was letting its freak flag fly, and the scenic design by Bill Symington and costuming by Nola Yergen capture those times in all their faded glory.

In the GCU production of "Cosi fan tutte," two young men receive a sendoff as "soldiers," only to return in disguise as hippies.

In the GCU production of “Cosi fan tutte,” two young men receive a sendoff as “soldiers,” only to return in disguise as hippies.

However, it’s because of Mozart that the two-hour “Cosi” is easily the most satisfying of the three operas Grand Canyon University has produced since the arts program was revived in the fall of 2010. “Amahl and the Night Visitors” (2011) and the two-in-one “Beauty and the Beast” and “Comedy on the Bridge” (2012) were fine as appetizers, but this is a full meal of some of Mozart’s best music, a score so widely appreciated that no less than New York’s Metropolitan Opera staged a “Cosi” revival this fall.

On Friday’s opening night, GCU’s Music Department came through. This is a busy season, with “Handel’s Messiah” (Dec. 5) and the annual Christmas choral concert (Dec. 10) still to come, and the ability to handle a demanding work such as “Cosi” is more than impressive. Assistant Dean Juan Hernandez served as music director, and talented pianist Mark Fearey and longtime voice instructor Sheila Corley also contributed mightily to the production, which is sung in English.

“Cosi fan tutte,” roughly translated from Italian as “Women are like that,” uses comedy to raise questions about fidelity. Sisters Fiordiligi (sung by Chelsey Minkler) and Dorabella (a role shared by Andrea Hall and Kaitlyn Yates) are head over heels about the respective men in their lives, Guglielmo (Anthony Cotoia) and Ferrando (Gavin Ely) — and vice versa. But the cynical bachelor Don Alfonso (John Luke Osorio) bets the boys that their girls aren’t so virtuous after all.

“They’re all the same,” Don Alfonso sings dismissively, confident in his wager.

A scheme is devised by which Guglielmo and Ferrando are sent off to war and then brought back in disguise, to test the loyalty of Fiordiligi and Dorabella. In the Ethington production, the men leave to an emotional farewell in Army fatigues and soon return as scruffy hippies, wearing peace-sign medallions, love beads and headbands, eager to woo the other guy’s woman. (If “Love the One You’re With” by Crosby, Stills & Nash isn’t running through your head as this unfolds, well, you’re still just a kid.)

Don Alfonso enlists the help of the women’s chambermaid, Despina (Natalie Shuler and Rebekah Hughes), to see that things go in his favor — and they do. An intentionally ambiguous ending leaves us to ponder for ourselves the moral questions posed by “Cosi.”

Disguised as hippies, Ferrando (left, Gavin Ely) and Guglielmo (Anthony Cotoia) play a trick on their women to see if they will remain faithful.

Disguised as hippies, Ferrando (Gavin Ely, in blond wig) and Guglielmo (Anthony Cotoia) play a trick on their women to see if they will remain faithful. Don Alfonso (John Luke Osorio, in red) is betting that they won’t.

The student voices in this production are uniformly outstanding. Minkler, a senior who first became known to GCU audiences in “Beauty and the Beast,” takes on the challenging Fiordiligi role like a pro and proves that she has the potential for a career in opera. The show-stopping aria, with its spectacular range, is said to have been written by Mozart out of spite for a prima donna he disliked. But it’s not too much for Minkler, who also brings impressive acting ability to the stage. Ely’s sweet tenor is right there with her, and their duet in the second act is a delight.

Yates, Cotoia, Osario and Shuler (a terrific Despina) also are on top of their game, and as a result this cast succeeds with both the music and the comedy. Claire Penneau, less than a year removed from throat surgery, had been scheduled to share the Fiordiligi role but needed to withdraw from the production at the last minute because of concerns about how her voice would hold up. Minkler will sing all of the performances, a serious test of endurance.

We’ve become accustomed to the brilliant detail of Symington and Yergen, who successfully create a trip back in time with the look of “Cosi.” A slew of late-’60s touchstones are in place: the macramé owl wall hanging, the Tang and Sanka and Bugles chips, the floral-print dresses, the bell-bottom jeans and garish plaid slacks, the deck of Uno cards. As hippies, a Jerry Garcia-like Guglielmo and a surfer-dude Ferrando appear to have arrived straight from Woodstock. The only thing missing is a beat-up VW bus (and Symington probably searched for one).

Bringing it all together superbly is Pensis, whose vision for what GCU’s talented students can do and what audiences will enjoy has never been sharper than it is with “Cosi.” The production is laugh-out-loud funny in many places, and you will leave with a smile on your face (offsetting possible anxieties about your fickle heart).

It’s debatable whether “women are like that.” But Ethington productions, whether directed by Pensis or Michael Kary, are consistently like this — and that’s as good as college theatre gets.

Performances for the second and final weekend of “Cosi fan tutte” will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 639.8880 for tickets. 

Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].

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