Manon Lescaut is an opera that evolves as the acts unfold. Much like the eponymous heroine, the music grows from fickle and borderline pointless to a much deeper exploration of human feelings, and then to bloom in a moving second half until Manon's death – one of the most tragic of the whole operatic repertoire.

The Kungliga Operan offered a production from 2005 by Knut Hendriksen which featured period costumes but modern, stylized settings with glass, metal and, in the boudoir of the second act, several Louis Ghost armchairs, designed for Kartell by Philippe Starck. The clash worked well: the spare, stylish settings focused the attention on the singers and the music, and the period costumes gave the necessary frame to feelings and values that are hard to transpose to the modern era. One successful idea was the depiction of the “criminal” women deported to America in the third act: the director indulged only minimally in the usual sexy, lewd characterization of the women, rather focusing on their misfortune, mental illness and devastating poverty. The choice of depicting their victimization, rather than their supposed crimes, exposes the horrible violence of their situation. 

The Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Marc Soustrot, gave an easy, comfortable rendition of Puccini’s music, with gripping legato phrases, tasteful dynamics and a sense of flow. The only problem was that the orchestra had a tendency to drown the singers. This was particularly obvious in the first act, where the singers were still perhaps a bit tense on première night. The chorus did a great job in the ensemble scenes, with musical precision and a good sense of the stage.

Asmik Grigorian has made the Royal Stockholm Opera one of her artistic homes, and her return, after last year's success in Fedora, was greeted with warmth, affection and great expectations. She did not disappoint. Her strong, well-set voice is perfectly suited to Manon, and her beautiful timbre did justice to the sweet melodies that Puccini wrote for his heroine. “In quelle trine morbide” was delivered with extreme ease and melancholy, and powerful, perfect high notes. But it was the ending, the death scene, which proved to be the highlight of the evening. Grigorian’s musical and acting skills came together to portray the dying girl in one of the most realistic deaths ever set to music: not the sublimation of the passing of a Romantic heroine, not a transmigration of a hopeful soul to heaven, but the horrible, physical death of a young girl still desperately attached to life.

Sergey Polyakov, as Des Grieux, started a bit stiff and seemed ill at ease but became more relaxed as the evening progressed. His tenor is smooth and warm, and, while his projection could be better, he managed to be convincing as the young lover. His interpretation in the last two acts was intensely moving; his desperation came through.

Lescaut, Manon’s brother, was sung by Karl-Magnus Fredriksson. He also had a rather slow start, but his singing in the second act was enjoyable. His baritone was sweet and well set, while it may have lacked a bit of presence. Nevertheless, his interpretation was believable and engaging.

Geronte, Manon’s elderly keeper, was interpreted by Lennart Forsén, who we heard last season in Stockholm in the Ring as Fasolt, Harding and Fafner (in Siegfried). His bass is quite well suited to turn-of-the-century Romantic music, and his acting as the lecherous suitor was spot on. Unfortunately, his Italian pronunciation was not up to par; he gave me the impression of an old-fashioned Germanic singer.

Vivianne Holmberg and Göran Eliasson as the singer and the dance master, respectively, in the second act, enlivened the show with a sparkling, fun performance. All the other singers contributed equally to an enjoyable première, with honourable mention to William Davis Lind, a young student who just graduated from the Operahögskolan in Stockholm, who aptly interpreted Edmondo, the student, in the first act.