What: I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Where: Mercury Theatre

Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi took on a special resonance, staged in the same Mercury Theatre that hosted our city's brave operatic endeavours three decades ago.

This bel canto treatment of the Romeo and Juliet story, staged by Frances Wilson's Auckland Opera Studio, was the latest in a line of memorable productions of lesser-known works by composers from Handel to Kurt Weill.

With a minimal set, director Patrice Wilson drew strong characterisations from five crucial soloists while, around them, various extras came in and out of the narrative to striking symbolic effect.

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While purists might miss the music that fell on the cutting-room floor, the ruthless editing made for compelling drama. An opening chorus of angry Capulets was replaced by a high-powered trio of Damian Arnold, Joel Amosa and Wade Kernot which set the plot rolling in gripping recitative, burdened only by surtitles too dimly illuminated for legibility.

Throughout, an instrumental quartet led by exemplary pianist and musical director Rosemary Barnes offered a crisp and simpatico musical backdrop, with effective shading from Luca Manghi's flute, Donald Nicholls' clarinet and Nicola Baker's horn.

The second act, running at just over 40 minutes, had the immediacy of a thriller, dominated by Madison Nonoa and Filipe Manu as the star-crossed lovers. Both had already impressed in the previous act with exquisite singing but their final tomb scene effortlessly took this to a new level.

Dramatically preceded by a heroic duel duet between Manu and Arnold's Tebaldo, the lovers' final reunion captured tragedy with the purest lyricism which, even with Nonoa's daring pianissimo, had the emotional urgency that marks Bellini as a composer who so shrewdly understood the joys and torments of love.