Puccini is much more than the man who gave the world Boheme, Butterfly and Tosca - and conductor Giordano Bellincampi is out to prove that with the composer's Manon Lescaut.

It's the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's annual Opera in Concert, presented with New Zealand Opera, and the work that made Puccini's name back in 1893. Audiences were won over and one critic, emerging from Milan's La Scala after its premiere, hailed Manon as "the work of the genius conscious of his own power".

Italians have always taken their opera very seriously and this particular scribe soon resorted to hyperbole, describing it as "the song of our paganism, of our artistic sensualism" and a work that "caresses us and becomes part of us".

Bellincampi, while not quite so effusive, admits that as a seasoned Puccini conductor, Manon is a favourite and the most personal of all the composer's operas. He does say it's not "calculated to perfection" like La Boheme but perhaps it is the unevenness of Manon that makes it even more beautiful.

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"The great tragic duet in the last act has a quality of writing and ambition that you don't see very often in Italian opera," Bellincampi says.

Manon Lascaut has a relatively compact cast. Apart from the lovers, Manon and Des Grieux, the heroine's brother is played by Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis and Australian bass Pelham Andrews takes the role of Geronte. You'll also find talented New Zealand singers, including mezzo Bianca Andrew and bass James Ioelu, playing smaller parts.

The emotional focus of Manon Lescaut comes from the two lovers, who include Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia. She fits Auckland in between playing Verdi's Desdemona in Tokyo and Puccini's Cio-Cio San in Hamburg.

Although Auckland Town Hall is no opera house, previous APO/NZ Opera presentations have resourcefully transformed what could have been a traditional concert into a night of musical theatre. Last year's Otello was a case in point and Bellincampi remembers just how special it was.

"I've done a lot of productions of Otello in theatres," he says. "But it was something else to put on such a big show in such a short time. If you're working in a German opera house, then Otello might be performed every season.

"But the APO doesn't play this work every year and to do so, with such a short lead-in, and achieve such a good result, was phenomenal."

Lowdown
What: Manon Lescaut
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Friday at 7.30pm.