Laurent Pelly’s 2012 production of Massenet’s Manon at the Metropolitan Opera, starring Anna Netrebko in the title role, is a study in contrast and contradiction. Direct confrontations between youth and experience, virtue and sin, innocence and corruption, brightness and dark, all factor into the striking visual presentation of this production. The manic trajectory of a young girl’s coming-of-age story, like Manon herself, leaves an indelible impression of the tragedy of opposing forces.

Manon begins lightheartedly. Act I is littered with jokes and opportunities for physical comedy. The antics of Christophe Mortagne’s Morfontaine and his trio of female companions Poussette, Javotte and Rosette, take ample advantage of this through clever staging and physical gags, Mortagne’s at times unsteady tenor only amplifying the humour of his bald, belly-rubbing character. Taking place in a beige-grey courtyard surrounded by tall buildings, the crowd scenes are smartly dealt with, using multiple levels and windows which open to reveal the female chorus. The comedy doesn’t last however, and Manon’s impulsive decision to flee with des Grieux leads her down the road to perdition.

Shades of grey and brown pervade most scenes, with unadorned walls and windows and a minimum of props. Most of the warmth and colour comes from the rich costumes and the narrow pools of light which subtly follow characters across the stage. Manon’s Act IV costume, a hot pink gown (in marked contrast with the 19th-century setting) seems more a commentary on her state of mind than anything else. In fact any attempt to remain faithful to a period aesthetic is trumped by symbolism, including a nightmare Busby Berkeley-esque casino scene in the Hôtel de Transylvanie, and the postmodern concrete wasteland of Act V, highlighting the inhuman nature of Manon and des Grieux’s lot. Netrebko’s rosy cheeks become all the more effective in the cool half-light of Pelly’s production.

The dashing tenor Piotr Beczala in the role of the Chevalier des Grieux is a fine match for Netrebko’s soprano. His performance is clear and his characterisation constant throughout, only hinting at roughness during moments of impassioned outpouring. The character of Manon is anything but constant. As she progresses from the simple country girl of Act I through the star-crossed bohemian lover of Act II, the “toast of Paris” in Act III, the gambling hedonist of Act IV, and finally the forlorn victim of her own choices in Act IV, the challenge for any soprano is to portray the folly of a fickle heart while remaining likeable enough to elicit sympathetic identification at each misstep, and genuine sorrow at the ultimate tragedy. Netrebko manages just the right balance of innocence, curiosity and misguided intuition to endear Manon to the audience. From her first appearance she presents an excitable girl, inexperienced in the world of men, but willing to test its limits by unbuttoning the top of her blouse, playfully twisting her hair or leading with her hips. Netrebko’s buttery rich voice also hints at a sensuousness undiscovered in the young ingénue. The twinkle in her eyes comes off to great effect, thanks to the many close shots.

Bass David Pittsinger in the role of Count des Grieux stands out thanks to a beautiful, full tone and imposing moral presence in contrast to the other characters. The outstanding orchestra is led by principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who achieves a remarkable sense of flow through his energetic pacing, while never missing his chance to linger on a particularly expressive passage.