La boheme, Royal Opera House, London

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The Independent Culture

This was to have been Piotr Beczala's night – his chance to show off his vibrant top notes and ardent timbre as the romantic lead, Rodolfo, in Puccini's La bohème. But a severe cold, causing him to sound more fuzzy than focused and dulling the gleam of his upper register, forced him to withdraw after a couple of acts.

It can't be easy making your house debut halfway through a performance, but the substitute Rodolfo, Teodor Ilincai, scheduled to sing the role later in the run, seemed admirably poised.

So, though we were deprived of the vocal brilliance for which Beczala has earned a reputation as a hot ticket, all was not lost. Even coming in cold to the gathering dramatic heat of the tavern third act, Ilincai delivered with a sureness of technique and tone.

The Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava, singing Mimi for the first time at this address, summoned impressive power at the top of her range but was less convincing in portraying the frailty of her character. She played more intuitively to both her opposite tenors than she did to the young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, making his first appearance at Covent Garden. Yet, despite some initial wobbles, Nelsons proved that he has the measure of Puccini's often mercurial writing. The orchestra responded with hectic energy to his confident, detailed interpretation.

The Italian Gabriele Viviani, also new to the Royal Opera, brought a slightly subdued passion to Marcello, while Inna Dukach's vocally rounded Musetta was in danger of appearing stridently over-excited rather than seductive. The rest of the large cast is strong, the bohemian friends providing characterful ensemble backing with Kostas Smoriginas producing a textured "coat aria", and Jacques Imbrailo as a lively Schaunard. Donald Maxwell presents an unusually spry portrayal of the elderly sexual predator Alcindoro.

Julia Trevelyan Oman's painterly designs contain abundantly atmospheric detail, like a fascinating mural deepened by layers of grime and varnish. Adding to the colourfully populated scenes, the innumerable extras – from barrow boys and waiters to the canine show-stealer, Pickle the white German spitz – played their parts with abundant spirit. In the end this Bohème wasn't unutterably moving. But it was engaging enough, thanks in no small way to director John Copley's unerring stage sense and the durability of his classic 1974 production.

To 11 January (020 7304 4000)