There was nothing out of place in this production of La bohème at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. Everything in the staging was just as one could expect: 19th-century Paris, depicted with precise scenes and costumes (by Francesco Zito); the four young Bohemians who live meagrely, pretending to work, but basically fooling around without thinking of the future; the romance and the death. Director Mario Pontiggia put it all on stage with competence and accuracy. His approach to the love story of Rodolfo and the doomed seamstress Mimì came to life in a naturalistic but elegant mode, but in the end we left the opera house with an impression of coldness, as if we too lived in the Parisian garret.

The sets were lovely – the Barrière d’Enfer especially – and all the parts were technically well acted and sung, but one felt like a lack of passion in the performance. Only when Eleonora Buratto’s tragic heroine Mimì sang, a good deal of real warmth and pathos entered the singing and acting.

Pontiggia did not forget though that this tale about youth and loss of innocence is a combination of comedy and tragedy, and gave room to the gags of the four lads and to the lively street show in the second act.

La bohème is not only a tale of tragic love and despair: of its four tableaux, about a half (the beginning of the first and the fourth acts and the whole of Act 2) is definitely comic, with the four friends who keep playing jokes on one another like college teens. It’s when the doomed Mimì enters the garret and they fall in love with each other in the dark, that real life that moves in. When she returns to the attic to die among her friends, the emotional tension grows to a striking climax. Mimì's death calls the four friends abruptly to maturity and responsibility.

The singers’ performances were certainly efficient, but it was mainly Buratto’s touching Mimì who came across as a profoundly felt character. With her silvery, refined tone she performed an impeccable Mimì, with warm expression and emotional involvement.

As Rodolfo, Jean-François Borras' lyric tenor displayed a notable range and some moments of vigour, with a fresh Italianate ring, but he lacked some colour and solidity in the voice. He was in want of the kind of fullness a singer needs to manage a house as big as San Carlo. In the duets with Buratto, one felt like turning up the tenor's volume: his vibrant bel canto was distinctly overwhelmed by her round, shiny sound.

Of the other Bohemians, soprano Francesca Dotto’s Musetta showed an appealing brazenness in the Café Momus, revealing an analogous talent for deeper emotional involvement in Act 4 as she displayed the character’s bigheartedness and sensitiveness. As Marcello, Mario Cassi made the most of his pleasantly warm baritone and his acting was convincing, and there were moments in his exchanges with Dotto’s Musetta sustained by force and conviction. Fabrizio Beggi’s Colline was well sung, too: the aria “Vecchia zimarra” was delivered with sincere compassion. Leon Kim (Schaunard) did well, with assurance and clarity.

Stefano Ranzani conducted the score skilfully, making us appreciate every detail, with great confidence. Yet, sometimes the reading of the score sounded uneven, as if he had to bow to the necessities on stage in an effort to elicit more passion and dramatic intensity from the singers.