After years of opera going, is it really still possible for me to be moved to tears by a tenor’s wail at the sight of a consumptive heroine dying tunefully in her bed at the end of the last act? I didn’t think so, but on the basis of last night’s Covent Garden performance of La Bohème, the answer would appear to be yes.

The tenor and heroine in question were Joseph Calleja and Carmen Giannattasio, singers at opposite poles of their Covent Garden careers. Calleja is one of the top stars: a regular at the Met and with the top houses in Austria and Germany. Giannattasio was making her Covent Garden debut as the replacement’s replacement: the Royal Opera raised eyebrows when Celine Byrne was declared to be ill just a week after being engaged to stand in for Anja Harteros.

Rodolfo and Mimì’s meeting in Act I is the centrepiece of La Bohème, the most intimate, utterly believable depiction that I know of the process of two people falling in love. Calleja was simply outstanding, his voice and chest swelling with growing passion, hitting the high notes with complete confidence and beauty of line. Giannattasio’s response, Si - mi chiamano Mimì all but matched him: a little voice at the beginning growing in strength and abandon through the course of the aria. Giannattasio is rock solid in the lower part of her range, delivering a pianissimo that can be heard with perfect clarity up in the furthest parts of the house but which is still a pianissimo; the perfect diction and roundedness of her voice loses a little at the top end, but that’s more than made up for by phrasing and excitement in her dynamics. It was a splendid début, and we’ll be seeing more of her.

Semyon Bychkov showed the paradoxical way in which an opera conductor can totally subordinate the orchestra to the needs of the singers and still come out on top. Puccini’s music offers endless opportunities for the orchestra to let rip in those glorious, swelling string phrases, and it’s only too easy to get carried away and overpower everything. Bychkov was precise and restrained, giving space for his singers to rise above the orchestra for the vast bulk of each aria, making the soaring climaxes all the more intense when they came. Puccini also has several shock moments - harsh fortissimi chords coming out of nowhere: these are all the more powerful if there is greater contrast to the music that precedes them. The polyrhythmic music of the Act II crowd scene - Stravinsky before Stravinsky - came across with particular clarity and excitement.

La Bohème is an ensemble piece with a large cast and I haven’t space to mention everyone, but I can’t think of a weak link in the cast. Fabio Capitanucci and Nuccia Focile were fine performers vocally, but what particularly impressed me was the all round quality of the acting.

John Copley’s production goes for Verismo with a capital V: the sets are a photo-realistic interpretation of an artist's garret, busy café and cold, winter Parisian street. Within this realistic setting, every performance seemed utterly believable - the horseplay between the group of friends, the baiting of the hapless landlord Benoît and the sugar daddy Alcindoro, the break-ups and reunions of the lovers and, most of all, the dreadfulness of the scene at Mimì’s deathbed when everyone shuffles around wanting to help but not really sure where to put themselves. What makes it so effective is the attention to detail of every movement and gesture. This is hardly a new production from a new director - it's the 25th outing since its début in 1974. But it's so authentically close to the innermost spirit of the opera that for my money, I'm going to class it as ageless rather than aging.

In the Bachtrack office recently, we were having a debate about the right guidelines for star ratings on the site: the question was raised as to whether it was right to give something five stars if it wasn’t in any way innovative. My opinion was that five stars were perfectly reasonable for a perfect or near-perfect execution of an established piece, and that’s precisely what we got at Covent Garden last night: no frills, no innovation, just an immaculate performance of a classic opera. Remaining tickets for this are probably few in number, but beg, buy or steal one if you can.

When, as several people expect, Antonio Pappano is finally head-hunted by the Met, what price Semyon Bychkov for the next music director at the Royal Opera? He’d get my vote...

ROH: La Bohème, at Royal Opera HouseDavid Karlin reviews La Boheme at Covent Garden, conducted by Bychkov, with Carmen Giannattasio and Joseph Calleja.5