Auckland Opera Studio made a welcome return to the stage after a two-year absence since their stunning Così fan tutte with a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor directed by legendary New Zealand theatre director Raymond Hawthorne. Utilising the classic Mercury Theatre, the audience was treated to a young, very believable cast showcasing a star in the making in the form of New Zealand-born Samoan soprano Marlena Devoe.

Devoe is fresh from winning the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Bel Canto Awards in Sydney and she certainly demonstrated her natural aptitude for bel canto style here. “Regnaza nel silenzio” showed off her ability to sculpt a long phrase and the ensuing cabaletta gave us some nigh-perfect passagework. Devoe's is a pleasing lyric soprano that gains in amplitude as it gets higher; the final high phrases of “Quando rapita” were as magnificently gleaming and immaculately poised as any I've heard and she took every glorious opportunity to end a scene with a note in alt. She also has that rare ability to fine the voice down to the sweetest pianissimo without losing body and create a "moment" whose stillness seems to last forever. Her lower register started off a little cloudy but cleared up nicely for a beautifully realised mad scene. One had to admire the attention given to the text here, the chilling "fantasma" and the unearthly distracted beauty of "un'armonia celeste" being just two examples. The cadenza with flute solo and cabaletta were both spectacular, Devoe's coloratura totally on point and always seeming to serve some dramatic purpose. Her trill too is stunningly genuine. This was a Lucia with fidgety gestures showing signs of incipient madness from her first entrance yet she remained fully dignified in the exchanges with her brother. Any scenery-chewing was eschewed in the mad scene, instead achieving a sad and dignified end for Lucia which was most moving.

She had a worthy love interest in the form of Australian tenor David Woodward, vibrant and throbbing in tone, very Italianate in style. Emotion was always at the fore for him with a remarkably felt recitative and aria in the final scene. The oft-cut Wolf's Crag duet with Enrico was another highlight, the compelling vocalism from both making it seem more dramatically viable than usual. Unfortunately, throughout there was a suspicion that Woodward's voice was tightening on top - unlike Lucia and Enrico, this Edgardo didn't linger up high when the opportunity was there. Indeed, he came slightly to grief in the highest section of "Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali" but recovered well.

Philip Rhodes has experience in the role of Lucia's brother, Enrico, and it showed with his complex portrait of the character. He brutalised his sister but it was clear this was a man on the ropes trying to save his honour and his family. Vocally, things were tip-top too as he filled the theatre with his ample baritone, full and rich from the bottom range to his thrilling high notes but with a subtle ear for dynamics. His role fleshed out by the opening up of the standard cuts, James Ioelu, though perhaps seeming more baritone than bass, was a most sympathetic Raimondo. The smaller roles were taken ably.

The same attention to style that was brought by the principals was also instilled in the Auckland Chamber Orchestra by conductor Peter Scholes. Generally adopting flowing speeds, he nevertheless knows exactly where to employ rubato to create a "moment" that allows the singers to shine. Attention to underlying pulse is crucial in keeping the tension going in these bel canto-period works and Scholes had this forward momentum in mind the whole time. He was sensitive too to the particular needs of Woodward's tenor, steering through certain moments in such a way to minimise pressure on his higher register. The orchestra's brass section had a bad patch in Act II but otherwise they played superbly, with particularly gorgeous contributions from the woodwind (Scholes's experience as a clarinettist perhaps showing). The harp solo introduction to Lucia's first aria was also particularly notable.

For new revelations about the work one would perhaps have to go elsewhere but, crucially, Hawthorne has a directing style that is both simple and engaging, allowing the singers to get on with the important business of singing without cluttering up the stage with distractions. After the busyness of the recent Don Giovanni production at New Zealand Opera, it was a relief to experience a production more sensitively attuned to the needs of the vocalists. Tracy Grant Lord's simple and angular black-and-white sets were surprisingly able to evoke the varying Scottish settings with only minor changes of furniture. For the costuming, Lord again for mainly black with the coup de théâtre being Lucia's sudden appearance in stunning red in her mad scene. It's great to see opera making a comeback at the Mercury Theatre which has been under-utilised for too long and here's hoping we don't have to wait another two years for Auckland Opera Studio's next production.