COC’s “Don Pasquale” is a Good-Natured Romp (Opera Review)

Gaetano Donizetti’s comic masterpiece Don Pasquale has been delighting audiences since its premiere at the Théâtre-Italien Paris in 1843, its lovingly satirical take on ageing and ego losing none of its charm after nearly two centuries. The Canadian Opera Company’s deliberately cartoonish new production (imported from the Scottish Opera) occasionally tips into absurdity – much to its detriment – but a strong cast still makes this a Don worth seeing.

COC's "Don Pasquale" is a Good-Natured Romp (Opera Review)
Dr. Malatesta (Joshua Hopkins) and Norina (Simone Osborne) have some fun at the expense of Don Pasquale (Misha Kiria). [Photo c/o COC 2024]
Don Pasquale (Misha Kiria) is ageing, wealthy, and egocentric, a vecchio impazzo (“old fool”) whose indulgences seem primarily intended to annoy his lovelorn nephew, Ernesto (Santiago Ballerini). Ernesto has his heart set on the lovely Norina (Simone Osborne), whose fatal flaws – as far as Uncle Pasquale are concerned – are that she is a widow, and, worse than that, poor.

As the opera begins, Pasquale has refused Ernesto’s entreaties to approve the marriage; instead, Pasquale sets out to find a young bride of his own, heedless of whether any marriageable young woman would be interested in this unkempt, ornery old man. Sensing an opportunity for some old-fashioned mischief-making, Ernesto’s good pal Dr. Malatesta (Joshua Hopkins) offers to oblige by arranging Pasquale’s marriage to his “sister” (who is not, in fact, who she claims to be). Shenanigans – mistaken identities, miscommunications, disguises – ensue.

The COC/Scottish Opera production resituates the action to 1960s Italy, with an aesthetic and some comic beats that call to mind the Commedia all’Italiana cinema of the era (think 1961’s Divorce, Italian Style). The set is wonderful, walls askew, hanging laundry everywhere, but some additions to this production – like a running gag about cats – fall flat, undermining the jokes already present in the libretto (by Donizetti and collaborator Giovanni Ruffini).

Other additions, like a funny bit about the extravagantly oversized staff recruited against Pasquale’s wishes, are more successful. (Meanwhile, the nerd in me can’t resist pointing out that the Catwoman comic book Pasquale carries around was clearly published in the 1990s, a glaring anachronism in this 1960s-set production.)

Donizetti’s score, including some hilariously tongue-twisting arias (“Cheti, cheti, immantinente” is one of the highlights of the repertoire), is wonderful from start to finish. All four leads acquit themselves, though Kiria is the standout as the vain oaf Don Pasquale, ably meeting the demands – musical and physical comedy – of the opera. Osborne as Norina is less successful, her voice occasionally strained and her performance – no doubt a victim of the lazy comic stylings of co-directors Renaud Doucet and André Barbe – not nearly as feisty or playful as the libretto requires.

Hopkins’s Dr. Malatesta is quite funny, and nearly steals the show on several occasions, including the aforementioned, show-stopping “Cheti, cheti, immantinente”. (Though he can’t hold a candle to Mariusz Kwiecien, Malatesta of Malatestas.) Meanwhile, Ballerini’s Ernesto seems, amusingly, to have walked in from an entirely different opera, delivering one heart-rending, romantic, deeply beautiful tenor aria after another.

Donizetti, who composed the equally delightful L’elisir d’amore, was clearly in his element with Pasquale, threading together a succession of alternatingly beautiful and ridiculous musical showpieces for his cast. While there’s nothing quite on the scale of the gorgeous “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’elisir, the parts still add up to a decidedly entertaining whole.

Don Pasquale runs now through May 18, 2024. Tickets available here.