Vancouver Opera's Mod cats Don Pasquale The principals of Vancouver Opera's Don Pasquale, 2024. Photo: Emily Cooper.

Vancouver Opera's Mod cats Don Pasquale

Melissa Ratcliff

In the second show of the season, Vancouver Opera presents Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. A popular, comedic opera, but one seen less frequently on VO stages. In this production, we’re taken to the rundown pensione of the title character. As shown through a series of projected comic strips during the overture, Don Pasquale is incredibly fond of cats, but is equally allergic to them. The set is covered in fluorescent green cat tchotchkes, which he is petting and fawning over since he can’t have the real thing.

Our hero, played by baritone Gregory Dahl is an older, overweight, grumpy hotel owner, who is in an ongoing feud with his nephew Ernesto over inheriting his pensione and his money.

A scene from Don Pasquale, Vancouver Opera, 2024. Photo: Emily Cooper.

The hotel is staffed by three apathetic servants: an elderly porter who is nearly startled to death every time a guest wakes him from his nap, played by Thomas Jones; a Carol Burnett-style maid, complete with cigarette and falling stockings, played by Colleen Winton; and a long-suffering cook, played by Stefano Giulianetti. Despite being non-singing roles, the trio regularly stole the show with their physical comedy antics, and were a constant riot to watch.

Norina, played by soprano Elizabeth Polese, and her uncle Dr Malatesta, played by baritone Phillip Addis, hatch a plan to trick Don Pasquale to marry Norina, then bait-and-switch him until he’s so miserable that he decides to leave her, and leave his fortune to Ernesto.

Norina, dressed in a brilliant green to match the ceramic cats, arrives to seduce Don Pasquale. Far from being an innocent ingenue, Polese plays her as canny and cunning. Not only playing the part of a girl straight from a convent, she hilariously takes on various cat mannerisms to grab Pasquale’s attention. Vocally, Polese was triumphant, breezing through incredibly difficult coloratura with such skill that it looked effortless.

(l-r) Elizabeth Polese (Norina), Phillip Addis (Dr Malatesta) and Gregory Dahl (Don Pasquale) in Don Pasquale, Vancouver Opera, 2024. Photo: Emily Cooper.

Dahl, as Don Pasquale, was the perfect buffoon, constantly funny and full of bluster. Aided by clever makeup, the perfect comb-over wig, and a wedding suit that was at least three sizes too small, he was the ideal foil for Norina’s cunning. Dahl’s dark baritone was perfect for the character, bringing maturity and depth to the vocal lines without compromising at all on the comedy.

Josh Lovell as Ernesto was delightful. Despite the character having to linger in the background for much of the opera, he gets some of the best music to sing. Lovell’s brilliant, bright tenor was a showstopper, particularly in “Com’e gentil”, with beautiful phrasing and soaring high notes to spare.

Philip Addis as Malatesta was clever and reserved, in perfect contrast to the ridiculous Pasquale. He expertly moved all the pieces across the board, the clever chess master executing the master plan. Special nod to his duet with Pasquale, “Cheti, cheti, immantinente”, with blisteringly fast patter that was as fun to listen to as I’m sure it was difficult to execute.

Colleen Winton (left) and Elizabeth Polese as Norina in Don Pasquale, Vancouver Opera, 2024. Photo: Emily Cooper.

Director-designers Barbe and Doucet setting in 1960s Rome was lovely, colourful and dilapidated in equal measure, with a fun Mod makeover of the set for the second act. Including a rooftop terrace for guests, it allowed so many spaces to move between, with brilliant use of hanging laundry to cover scene changes. The costumes were brilliant – from the aforementioned neon green dress (with hair in cat ears!) and Pasquale’s ill-fitting suit, to the various Mod, Dolly Girl, and Vamp trends in the leads and chorus outfits.

The only odd directorial decision was to have Don Pasquale…pleasuring himself onstage to magazines of cats. It felt needlessly crude and off-putting for what is otherwise a very lighthearted comedy.

The principals of Don Pasquale, Vancouver Opera, 2024. Photo: Emily Cooper.

Newly-appointed music director Jacques Lacombe led the VO Orchestra nimbly through a fast, precise score with great nuance and skill. I imagine audiences have much more to look forward to from this award-winning conductor in the seasons to come!

The raucous production was hands down one of the best offerings VO has put on the stage in recent memory. Fun, hilarious, with a stage full of phenomenal Canadian talent, it had audiences in stitches, and is the perfect addition to VO’s 23-24 season.

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