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Review: Vancouver Opera sets the stage for comedy Don Pasquale

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Vancouver Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale should bring in audiences in droves — assuming they are up for a relatively unfamiliar bel canto work with an all-Canadian cast.

Central to the enterprise is the contribution of the production team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe. This is their third time round at VO: They brought an extravagant Turandot to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in 2017, and a similarly grand La Bohème two years later.

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Don Pasquale is on a very different scale, a slightly cynical comedy with only four significant roles and a few flashy moments for the chorus.

The set is one of the best in recent memory, rich but not overpowering, effective but ultimately rather simple. It frames the action and — vital for bel canto — keeps the singers close to one another and able to follow the baton.

As is almost obligatory these days, the mise en scène has been updated, in this instance to the Fellini La Dolce Vita era of Rome in the early 1960s. It works. The stage is crammed with a happy confusion of visual cliches; everything but Audrey Hepburn’s Vespa from Roman Holiday.

Written right at the end of Donizetti’s astonishingly prolific career, this is the work of a consummate master who perhaps was running out of things to say. Of course, there are lots of serviceable tunes and nicely crafted numbers, but the score contains no real popular hits.

This Don Pasquale takes an ensemble approach, with a cast made up of three Canadians in the earlier stages of their careers, plus VO favourite Gregory Dahl in the title role of the miserly grump Don Pasquale.

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Don Pasquale’s set is one of the best in recent memory. Photo by Emily Cooper

From the outset, Dahl’s comfortable presence and confidence is always apparent; we know at once that he will hold the stage and our interest even though the character he portrays lacks charm.

Baritone Phillip Addis, heard in Bizet’s Pearl Fishers last season, makes his role debut as the scheming Dr. Malatesta, singing with consistency and a measure of elegance.

Victoria-born tenor Josh Lovell sings Ernesto, Pasquale’s nephew, a role he will reprise at Glyndebourne later this year. Lovell was stiff in his first scene, but warmed up as the evening progressed.

Montreal-based soprano Elizabeth Polese plays Norina, the only woman’s role in the piece and one with a plethora of glittering high notes and runs. Not that this was all Polese had to offer; she seemed happy to embrace the comic potential implicit in her role.

The notion of an all-Canadian cast makes good sense. After all, who should showcase our finest singers if not Vancouver Opera? But given the exacting nature of the bel canto idiom, perhaps it was too much to expect the levels of finesse and informed style that an international cast might have displayed. There were times in the evening when one sensed five different notions of bel canto at work: subtly differing approaches from the four singers, and yet another from the pit and conductor Jacques Lacombe.

Lacombe’s first outing as the company’s new music director marks what one hopes will be a bright new chapter in VO history. In the aftermath of Jonathan Darlington’s departure, the company has gone too long without consistent musical leadership; standards slipped during the extended succession of guest conductors.

Certainly a bright spot in Don Pasquale, and a harbinger of good things to come, was a clean, disciplined orchestral sound.

Two performances remain: Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. More information HERE.

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