Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica's libretto for La Bohème has to rank as one of the greatest libretti in opera. It's fast-paced, taut and witty throughout, expansively romantic at times. Most importantly, the wonder of La Bohème is the way it paints human relationships with the pin-point accuracy of a Dutch master or a Victorian miniaturist. In the first and fourth acts, the friendship between four penniless artists overflows with the joy they find in each other and the dreadfulness of being cold and hungry. The end of the opera gives a compelling picture of how we deal with death from an illness that can't be defeated: the raging impotence at losing a loved one, the small, hopeless acts of kindness, the sheer embarrassment of being unable to think of any right thing to say.

Robert Workman, ENO
Robert Workman, ENO

The most telling passage is the scene for which Puccini wrote some of his greatest music: the coup de foudre in which Rodolfo and Mimì meet and fall in love. As Antonio Pappano put it in the BBC's wonderful series on Italian Opera earlier this year, Puccini does love like no-one else - you really believe that you're in that garret seeing the two young people falling for each other.

If all this sounds like a description of the work rather than a review of a particular performance, there's a reason: last night's performance by the ENO was straightforward, unfussy and almost flawless. I had the strange feeling of two hours of direct connection to Puccini's original artistic intent without the need for any intervening, distorting medium - a feeling which is particularly extraordinary for a performance in translation. I've been critical of ENO's translations in the past, and La Bohème must be a terrifyingly difficult libretto to translate, but Amanda Holden's version did a great job of capturing the work's humour, vivacity and occasional poetic expanse, in English that was current but not overfilled with anachronistic modern affectation.

The ENO's orchestra, conducted by Stephen Lord, were wonderful. Puccini's soaring melodies and heartstring-tugging chord progressions came across with strength and beauty. The dynamics were phenomenal, swelling from intimate softness to thunderous climax with a smoothness that perfectly captured Puccini's unique style. If I have a criticism of the whole evening, it's that the orchestra were sometimes a little bit too good: in the loudest passages, the singers simply couldn't compete with the raw power coming out of the pit and were rather swamped. Imagining this as a rock gig, I wanted to be at the mixing console fading the orchestra down a bit and turning up the level on the singers.

That problem aside, I loved the singing. Mimì was sung by the young soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, making her ENO debut. It's hard to imagine a better debut: Llewellyn's voice has a lovely warm timbre, she sang with clarity and precision, and she is a credible actress. Gwyn Hughes Jones sang an equally good Rodolfo. For La Bohème to work at its best, sparks must fly when the two are on stage together, and last night, the air fairly sizzled.

I've seen a lot of opera productions this year which have striven to add their personal stamp to the opera being performed, and I've usually disliked what they've added. This production, by Jonathan Miller, is the opposite: it's artistic, simple, direct and executed with terrific attention to detail. A pair of turntables gives us sets which cleverly switch between very realistic depictions of the indoors of the artists' top floor apartment or of the street scene outside. In Act II, the director faces a challenge of how to depict action which is going on simultaneously inside and outside the café. This was handled with disarming simplicity: build the set exactly true to life but with the walls missing, and then have all the characters move around the stage precisely as if the walls were still there.

The acting generally was top-notch, under the direction of Isabella Bywater, especially the scenes between the four friends, and the row between Marcello and Musetta. Watching La Bohème is a little like being under a magic spell: the music can captivate you and take you to a different plane, but the piece is such well-charted territory and so close to cliché that any imperfections can break the spell - whether it's a high note not sung quite on pitch, an awkwardness of movement or gesture, a costume that's not quite appropriate or a woodwind solo wavering off its note. Last night, the ENO took us through two hours of music and drama with hardly a flaw to break the spell. I was enchanted.