Puccini described his approach to Manon Lescaut as essentially Italian, writing with "desperate passion", rather than with the powder and minuets that he detected in the Frenchman Massenet's earlier take on the opera.

There was no shortage of passion in Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's presentation, from the moment conductor Giordano Bellincampi lit up its brilliant opening pages. A well-honed chorus continued the scene-setting with gusto, with Matteo Falcier's Edmondo the first of the fine cast to take the stage.

The dramatic and musical conviction of Serena Farnocchia and Kamen Chanev as Manon and Des Grieux effortlessly placed these lovers in the same league as Boheme's Mimi and Rodolfo, still to come from the composer's pen.

The last act was a compelling finale, thanks to Farnocchia's total inhabitation of the tragic Manon, not only with superlative singing, but a wealth of gesture and nuance.

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Dalibor Jenis was a powerful protagonist as Manon's brother, although credibility was strained when the personable, strong-voiced Pelham Andrews played the elderly Geronte.

Inevitably, with orchestra and singers sharing the stage, one's ear was drawn to the many musical subtleties of a score saturated with echoes of Wagner's Tristan. Yet, theatre was not forgotten, thanks to Stuart Maunder's directorial input, especially in the stark harbour scene of Act III, introduced with an Intermezzo of rare poetry.

What: Manon Lescaut
Where: Auckland Town Hall
When: Friday
Reviewer: William Dart