Since its inception in 2009, Jonathan Miller's production of La bohème has been back to ENO most seasons. It's a straightforward staging that we've described as "unfussy" and "refreshing" and, not unreasonably given that La bohème is a masterpiece, it has the ability to create an utterly magical evening of opera. This year's revival, directed by Natascha Metherell, had plenty of the good things that characterise the work and the production, but fell short of achieving the real magic.

David Butt Philip (Rodolfo) and Angel Blue (Mimì) © Thomas Bowles
David Butt Philip (Rodolfo) and Angel Blue (Mimì)
© Thomas Bowles

Musically, there was little to complain about. Gianluca Marcianò conducted solidly, brisk and shapely for most of the time, while still allowing the music (and the singers) plenty of space to breathe. Balance with the singers was generally good, and Marcianò's rendering allowed the famous melodies to come through clearly.

This is a young cast of singers. Angel Blue, who earned acclaim as Musetta in last year's revival, switched the high heels and strutting to the girl-next-door sweetness of Mimì. She has the technique required for this gentler role – warmth in the low register, solid intonation, good, smooth phrasing, although there are moments where her voice can go harsh on the high notes, which she seems to smooth out at the expense of diction. David Butt Philip has been singing smaller roles at Covent Garden under the Jette Parker programme: role-wise, this is a big step up for him for which he looked ready: he has a big, open voice and also showed good command of the sweeping phrasing that this music demands. George van Bergen also looked ready for his own step up, from Schaunard last year to Marcello this year.

Jennifer Holloway (Musetta) and George Von Bergen (Marcello) © Thomas Bowles
Jennifer Holloway (Musetta) and George Von Bergen (Marcello)
© Thomas Bowles

And yet, in spite of there being nothing really wrong musically, for the first two acts, the performance failed to grab me. This is mainly down to the acting: La bohème is the archetype of a verismo opera, which means that for it to work, you have to believe – and I didn't. The  horseplay between the four friends at the beginning had something missing, and while the crucial scene of Rodolfo and Mimì falling in love had vocal sparkle, it didn't have sexual chemistry: body language and stage movement were just a little restrained and uncertain. Once my eyes weren't being glued to the protagonists, they were drawn to the sets and lighting, which seemed simpler and greyer than when I've seen this production before. Since I doubt that this is actually the case, I put the effect down to this: an uncomplicated, down to earth set serves this opera well by not distracting one from the principal roles – but it demands true magnetism in those roles. The Café Momus scene with its crowd outside followed the same pattern as Act I: the music was sharply delineated and singing was fine, yet the drama didn't quite come through.

Things improved in Act III, as the soaring melodies and raw emotion in the music took over. Butt Philip's acting was at its best in the reconciliation scene with Mimì, with the relationship between van Bergen's Marcello and Jennifer Holloway's Musetta beginning to warm up properly. In Act IV, Butt Philip was a strangely resigned Rodolfo, accepting and helpless in the face of Mimì's fate rather than raging against it – a realistic portrayal, perhaps, rather than the more usual melodrama.

These are young stars: I hope that the acting performances will click as the run progresses. This was a thoroughly competent performance, but this production and this opera are capable of much more.