Manon Lescaut was Puccini’s first huge success as a composer of opera. In this 2008 Met production, featuring Karita Mattila as the eponymous heroine, Marcello Giordani as the Chevalier des Grieux, and James Levine at the healm of the MET Orchestra, it is easy to see – and hear – why. The vividness with which Puccini renders this tragic tale of the beautiful but fatally flawed Manon and her remarkably loyal young lover is gloriously represented in this performance, and the richness of Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes make it an exceptional all-round spectacle.

Joining Ms Mattila and Mr Giordani in the main singing roles are Dwayne Croft, as Manon’s unscrupulous, scheming, determined money-maker brother Lescaut, and Dale Travis, playing perfectly the part of the puffed-up old codger Geronte, swimming in money and intent on possessing a trophy female in the shape of Manon. But this is really an opera for the two lovers, who have the lion’s share of the vocal activity, and the orchestra, which works tirelessly to bring the opera to life in all its vibrancy.

The curtain rises on a rustic 18th-century inn, bustling with activity as students, servants and drinkers all rub shoulders amicably, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus clearly enjoying all the boisterous activity. Both orchestra and chorus sparkle with brightness and sprightliness in this slightly frantic but joyous opening scene, in which Puccini’s fantastic orchestral writing melts effortlessly into des Grieux’s gorgeous, sweeping aria melody. Mr Giordani’s tenor is all freshness and brightness in this act, barring one slightly strained moment in which his swoop for a top note is a little less graceful – a fleeting moment in an otherwise utterly convincing portrayal of the naïve but passionate young man totally besotted with the far-from-faultless Manon. Particularly impressive is the way Mr Giordani blows a hole in the ridiculously frivolous frippery of the second act – which takes place in Manon’s opulent Parisian gilded boudoir, virtuosically created by Mr Heeley – with his impassioned outpouring at the fickleness of his rediscovered lover.

His outburst provokes an equally heartfelt and intense reaction from Ms Mattila, whose representation of Manon is exemplary in the way the singer grows into the role: at first, she is tentative, an inexperienced young thing bound for a convent, enchanted by the sweet words of love uttered by des Grieux on their first meeting; secondly, she is sickeningly superficial, vain, bored mannequin obsessed with the frills of a wealthy existence. And finally, Ms Mattila unleashes the true tragedy of Manon’s character, a manipulated, tempted and abandonded woman, destroyed by her beauty and weakness of character. Because of this development, it is only in the opera’s final aria, “Sola, perfida, abbandonata”, that Ms Matilla shows herself at her finest, her most emotionally engrossing. This is not to say she is not superb before that – she shines in her beautifully mournful interplay with the flute in Act I’s love duet with Giordani, “Vedete? Io son fedele”, for example – but that her extraordinary representation of this difficult character only reveals itself in this, her ultimate utterance.

However, it is undoubtedly the MET Orchestra, masterfully directed by James Levine, which makes this performance. From the bright, playful opening notes, through the breathtaking, rousing, dramatic conclusions to the first two acts and the exquisite, heartbreaking intermezzo to Act III, to the desolate denouement, the orchestra is the lifeblood of the opera. Mr Giordani and Ms Mattila are superb, but without the truly sensational playing of Levine and company’s the performance would not have provoked the standing ovation it received, and deserved.