Jonathan Kent’s brave production of Puccini’s classic opera has opened with a stellar lineup that includes the Royal Opera House’s famed resident music director Antonio Pappano conducting, the remarkable Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais in the title role, and hunky tenor-of-the-moment Jonas Kaufmann as her lover.

A staple story in opera and ballet, Manon Lescaut is based on a 17th century French romance novel, and so one may sit down to watch this production expecting damsels in distress, love-struck heroes, lots of fans and swords, and nothing particularly new or relevant. But Kent’s production confronts the audience with surprising parallels between modern and historical gender politics that uncomfortably reveal just how little our culture has progressed.

Easily dazzled by riches and glamour, the complex and flawed heroine Manon leaves her impoverished student lover Des Grieux for wealthy nobleman Geronte. However, when Des Grieux comes to find her, she gives in to her love for him and agrees to escape. As they leave Geronte’s house she hesitates at the thought of leaving all her jewels, and is arrested for theft and prostitution. She, together with Des Grieux, is exiled to America, where she dies of a fever out in the desert.

Where Manon may have performed a tasteful gavotte for Geronte and his aristocratic friends in Act II of a traditional production, in Kent’s production she gyrates in a hot pink corset for her portly sugardaddy Geronte, a camera crew, and a row of aged male voyeurs, in a clear parody of women’s roles in modern porn and pop culture. Her expulsion to America takes the form of a reality TV show, where sex-trafficked prostitutes are pitilessly slut-shamed in front of a studio audience. The production cleverly shows how patriarchal culture still locates women’s value solely in their sexuality, then punishes them for capitalising on it, centuries after the original publication of the story.

Kaufmann’s tortured Des Grieux is animated and focused, and his powerful tone complements Opolais’ frequent moments of delicate and moving pianissimo. Opolais masters the full scope of the character’s demanding range, from a gutsy alto up to shimmering high notes, and although her face was often sadly hidden by her hair, her performance was expressive and charismatic. Although their relationship suffers from Puccini’s omission of Des Grieux’s and Manon’s life together in Paris, and from opera’s stage rules limiting the amount of time the performers can spend face-to-face, their chemistry is convincing, and their love feels charged and visceral.

Christopher Maltman handles the scheming-yet-good-hearted Lescaut with sardonic precision, and Benjamin Hulett captures a wonderfully free physicality for the young student Eduardo. Paul Brown’s detailed set aptly evokes pedestals that become scaffolds, and gives the production a very sharp modernity – although the final scene becomes slightly static and remote stuck at the severed top of his road to nowhere.

Jonathan Kent’s modern interpretation may have upset some opera purists, but for those who like to see things on stage that have something to say, rather than just schmaltzy re-hashings, this production is refreshing, challenging and engaging, as well as musically sumptuous.

Manon Lescaut will be performed at the Royal Opera House until 7 July. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website.