Don Pasquale, as evidenced by the Canadian Opera Company’s current Spring presentation on view at the Four Seasons Centre until mid-May, obeys all the expected compositional dictates of early 19th century bel canto. La solita forma (literally “conventional form”), a set of prescribed orchestral ground rules tirelessly upheld by seasoned practitioners — Rossini, Bellini, and Don Pasquale composer, Gaetano Donizetti, among them — are abundantly on show. Storytelling inevitably follows a pre-determined course.

An instrumental introduction announces the appearance of principal(s), followed by a rush of accompanied recitative or dialogue, segueing to a luscious cavatina delivered in luxuriously lyrical style. Book-ended by an additional outpouring of recit, each musically pre-determined sequence concludes with a galloping, high-spirited cabaletta, an eagerly awaited opportunity on the part of enthusiastic audiences then and now for explosive displays of virtuosic exhibitionism.

While musical parameters remain essentially unchanged, much else has undergone a process of welcome renovation here. This is a Don Pasquale rich in abiding classical resonance fast forwarded to a time of mid-20th century reinvention. Opera buffa and Italian period lifestyle collide.

Meticulously conceived by multi-talented internationalists, Montreal-based Barbe (André) & Doucet (Renaud), this through-designed Don Pasquale — direction, dramaturgy, sets and costumes all self-originated — shines with inspiration. Predictability and convention are largely displaced by a clear-eyed vision of greatly more naturalized characters and theatricality.

Set in a cramped neighbourhood hotel on a laundry-draped backstreet in 1960s Rome —less a bastion of la dolce vita, more a crumbling cornerstone of discomfort and neglect — the Pensione Pasquale is simultaneously nowhere and everywhere, a studied vision of shabbiness presided over by none other than owner and resident misanthrope, the reclusive, cat-loving Don Pasquale himself. The time has come for him to wed, old age be damned. Hopelessly lovestruck nephew Ernesto and his impertinent inamorata, Norina, soon find themselves at the centre of an uproarious ruse engineered by Dr. Malatesta, friend to the first, brother to the second. After much comedic chaos, any thought on the part of Pasquale of disinheriting Ernesto for defying the irascible old bachelor’s plans for a lucrative marriage of convenience to a wealthy widow is thankfully abandoned. Ernesto and Norina’s happiness as future husband and wife is all but assured.

Stock portrayals of figures drawn from the commedia dell’arte — Pantalone, Pierrot, Columbine and Il Dottore — mainstays of librettist Giovanni Ruffini’s 1843 libretto all in play here, are, if not entirely sidestepped, then certainly brought into alignment given Barbe & Doucet’s vivid shifts of narrative time and place.

If homage is being paid — and the impression is indelible — it is surely not so much to the distant past as it is to the legendary Cinecittà modernist, Federico Fellini —writer/director/verismo-inspired fantasist.

The ubiquitous collection of ornamental dayglo green cats that populates Pensione Pasquale’s weary worn-out lounge, a decidedly eerie figment of the proprietor’s feline-crazed imagination, is pure Fellini-esque daydream, a full explanation delivered in projected fotoromanza form during the playing of Donizetti’s masterfully moody overture.

An endless procession of captivating non-speaking, non-singing characters files in and out of view. Tables of beautiful people basking in self-admiration on Pensione Pasquale’s rooftop terrazza. A wide-eyed young visitor to the Eternal City, disapproving kerchiefed mamma in tow. A disgruntled chamber maid, cigarette dangling from tightly pursed lips. An outrageously ancient bellhop, more asleep on his feet than awake, roused into shuffled slow motion by the exasperated ring of the reception desk bell. Scenes are highly cinematic, a dizzy swirl of colour and action, atmosphere visually charged.

Appearing in the title role, baritone Misha Kiria gifts us with an evocative, superbly derelict Don Pasquale, singing with grumbly resolve, a moneyed old miser, unloved and alone. Un foco insolito mi sento addosso (“I feel an unusual fire within me”), enthuses Pasquale by way of opening solo, Kiria investing the spirited little cavatina with more than a hint of unexpected pathos, his Pasquale’s determination to find a spouse sparking the Don to life, a picture of faint hope in a sweat-stained undershirt.

Fellow baritone Joshua Hopkins sings Dr. Malatesta, a crafty character, puller of puppet strings, perhaps a little too eager to fulfill his self-appointed role as undoer of injustice, arguably more practical joker than altruist. Donizetti’s infamous patter duet sung by Kiria and Hopkins at nothing less than blistering breakneck speed, Aspetta, aspetta cara sposina/La mia vendetta già s’avvicina (“Just wait, my little bride! You won’t know what hit you!”), signposted and captioned, projected thought balloons literally flying, somehow encapsulates their entire relationship. Pasquale ranting. Malatesta in hot pursuit. Il poverino. (“Poor guy.”)

Tenor Santiago Ballerini sings an entirely beguiling Ernesto, a warm sunny brightness to his voice, a gentle breeziness to his stylings. Com’è gentil — la notte a mezzo april! (“How mild the nights are in April”), a heartfelt serenata, Ernesto alone with his thoughts in the moonlight, Norina waiting for him, is gorgeously rendered in untypically humble bel canto fashion.

Soprano Simone Osborne is Norina, smart, sassy, quick-witted, a young woman who knows her own mind. The unveiling of character via pose and gesture is exceptionally well-expressed, a master class in focused stage manners. Queen of the cadenza, Osborne soars, improvising with a deftness of technique and irrepressible abandon frequently and freely. Quel guardo il cavaliere in mezzo al cor trafisse (“Her gaze pierced the knight’s heart”), Norina reads aloud, idly perusing a book of romantic fluff, sniffing disdainfully before launching into a follow-up aria — So anch’io la virtù magica d’un guardo a tempo e loco (“I also know the power of a timely gaze”) — a moment of memorable wit and vivaciousness, one of many similar fine Osborne offerings throughout the evening.

The Canadian Opera Company Chorus fills the stage with harmony and bustle, an entire hotelful of servers and maids. Che interminabile andirivieni! (“What endless comings and goings!”)

Visiting Vancouver Opera music director Jacques Lacombe conducts a glorious sprawling Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, a sweeping tide of instrumental emotion rippling with rubato flooding the FSC. The hauntingly melancholic solo trumpet-led intermezzo that opens Act III is particularly affecting.

A refreshingly inventive attitude to theatrics and scena. A singularly insightful approach to characters and context. A lingering atmosphere of generosity and compassion. This striking, cleverly refreshed Don Pasquale thoroughly satisfies.