When the curtain went up at the beginning of Act III – the scene with the snow – there were audible gasps from all over the auditorium. That says a lot for three things – the enduring appeal of John Copley's 1974 production, the sharpness of Bruno Ravella's direction of the current revival, and the decision by the ROH to stage some performances as matinees, thus allowing a much wider audience to enjoy this timeless classic. This Saturday's was the 'B cast,' mostly made up of young, promising singers, many of whom will surely be graduating to the 'A' stream before long.

Both the leads were Romanian, both young and both gave all they had. Teodor Ilincai made his Covent Garden debut as Rodolfo in 2009, and his experience showed in his convincing assumption of the part. This is a voice with plenty of heft and italianità, marred at times by a tendency to hang on to a note rather too long; in ‘Che gelida manina’ his attack on ‘Cercar che giova’ left him a little exposed for the next lines, but this is a small fault when so much is right with a singer.

Anita Hartig was making her Royal Opera role début, after a considerable success at WNO. She looks perfect, her quiet phrasing in moments such as ‘Senza rancor’ was magical, and she acts with real conviction. The voice is quite hefty for a Mimì and when high up on the stave there is a tendency towards harshness, but this is still a lovely singer with a great future ahead.

Sonya Yoncheva was another ROH debutant as Musetta, and hers was the voice of the evening; it’s no surprise that she was an Operalia First Prize Winner. ‘Quando m’en vo’ especially revealed a luscious tone, ardent projection and elegant phrasing, and like the other two role debutants, she really can act.

The supporting singers were nearly all similarly young and convincing; Alessio Arduini’s Schaunard , Gabriele Viviani’s Marcello and Marco Vinco’s Colline made for a very believable set of Bohemians, both vocally and dramatically, and both Jeremy White’s Benoît and William Robert Allenby’s Alcindoro made strong impressions.

There was another debutant in the pit the shape of Alexander Joel, a British conductor who has held distinguished posts in various German opera houses and in Vienna; this showed in his sold grasp of the music’s structure and his supportive phrasing, and he coaxed wonderfully supple playing from the orchestra.

The naturalistic production is well known, most of us having seen it many times, but it still brings tears at the right moments, and it still looks achingly beautiful or depressingly seedy, as required. One day soon the ROH will surely have to replace it with something directed by someone who has never liked opera, can’t see the point of Puccini and who will festoon the stage with eviscerated mules and compel Rodolfo to castrate himself whilst singing ‘O soave Fanciulla’ – but in the meantime, this one runs until March 12th.

- Melanie Eskenazi