The Washington National Opera's brilliant revival of "Manon Lescaut" demonstrates that as early as 1893, when Giacomo Puccini was writing this, his first popular work, he knew well how to use music to make hearts beat faster and minds sympathize with his characters.

"Manon Lescaut" is based on a novel by Abbe Prevost, and director John Pascoe wisely chooses to remind the audience continually of the inspiration for the opera. Despite the plot's many unrealistic events, the fact that Pascoe frames the opera within the structure of a book helps keep "Manon Lescaut" credible: it's just a story, after all.

In front of Pascoe's set at the beginning of each act, an enlarged page of Prevost's novel is projected, its handwriting spelling out the thoughts of its imaginary author, a penniless writer named Renato des Grieux.

The first scene of the opera takes place in the late 1770s near a French inn. Des Grieux (Kamen Chanev) jokes with a crowd, establishing his uninterest in having a serious attachment to one woman. Yet when he sees the young Manon Lescaut (Patricia Racette), he falls instantly in love and the two agree to run away together.

If you go
'Manon Lescaut'
» Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW
» When: Through March 23
» Info: $25 to $300; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324;

But Manon has also caught the eye of a wealthy old man, Geronte de Ravoir (Jake Gardner), who follows her to Paris and seduces her away from des Grieux with his lavish lifestyle.

Manon eventually tires of her loveless life, and when des Grieux returns to her one night, she agrees to run off with him again, though she dallies to collect some jewels. She is arrested for theft and prostitution and deported to New Orleans, where she dies in des Grieux's arms, finally realizing the true power of love.

Racette creates a supremely affecting Manon. Her voice at the beginning of Act I, when she is supposed to be a young girl, is alluring and disarming. By the end of the opera, Racette's beautifully articulated, radiant soprano reflects her character's strength and internal transformation.

The role of des Grieux calls for many emotional extremes, and Chanev's powerful tenor is equal to them all, exhibiting intensity, anger and tenderness as well as adoration. The appeal of pairing Racette with Chanev is that, despite the extravagance of the libretto, they make the love between Manon and des Grieux seem real.

The ensemble and chorus are flawless. Giorgio Caoduro is commanding as Manon's brother. Gardner is entertaining as the greedy Geronte de Ravoir.

Ruth Hutson's lighting design is at times subtle, at times electrifying. She ends the opera with a crimson sky marking the demise of an extraordinarily passionate, flawed woman, a human being propelled by love, the first of Puccini's larger-than-life tragic heroines.