LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The star draw for the Royal Opera House's new production of Jules Massenet's "Manon" was undoubtedly Russia's Anna Netrebko, a top soprano with looks and charisma to go with the voice.
Judging by the cheers at the end of the premiere late on Tuesday, it was her on-stage partner Vittorio Grigolo who also stole the show in the Italian tenor's first outing as Manon's hapless lover Chevalier des Grieux.
The 33-year-old, who was a soloist in the choir of the Sistine Chapel and made a successful "popera" album, is increasingly concentrating on pure opera, and attributed his success to understanding what his character was going through.
"Before debuting this role I had to have all these emotions already in my background," he told Reuters backstage after a packed performance. "If I didn't have these emotions it would not be possible to deliver that."
Grigolo said he was not put off by singing alongside one of the opera world's biggest names.
"You don't think about the superstar," he said of Netrebko, who has performed the lead role of Manon several times.
"If you are here on stage, the stage we share is going to be shining for everybody.
"When you sing in such a great theater it is like playing Wimbledon -- before you play there are no stars, then after you play the stars come." The tennis fan has been following the grass court championship which began in London this week.
"Anna knows this very well. She's a top star and she knows how to manage the match."
French director Laurent Pelly chose to set his new production of the opera in the latter part of the 19th century, around 150 years later than the original story which was based on Abbe Prevost's novel "Manon Lescaut."
The shift brings the action into what has been called the "golden age" of the Parisian courtesans -- women who traded sexual favors for money, gifts, entertainment and fame.
According to the Royal Opera House, the women who became known as "grandes horizontales," were the stars of their day.
Netrebko, 38, plays Manon, who is destined to enter a convent before she is swept up by wealthy admirers who shower her with gifts and compete ruthlessly for her affections.
Manon cannot resist the allure of wealth and luxury, and so turns her back on her lover des Grieux. When the couple eventually reunite, their lives spiral out of control with tragic consequences.
"It's set in a different time, different costumes," Netrebko said, when asked how Pelly's version differed from those she had performed before.
"I mean, Manon's still the same (although) I think she's a little bit worse here, I mean a little but more naughty in this production. But why not?"
She said the role, which is seen as technically challenging due to the length of the performance, was not as difficult as some people imagined.
"It is demanding, but the way it is written is very comfortable for the voice. It is very easy to sing, it is very comfortable, so I am not getting that tired or struggling."
Editing by Steve Addison