Every once in a while some muddled doubter comes along and bluntly asks whether there is really any reason for opera. Why take some simple little story and load it down with all that music and, in most cases, sing it in another language? Why not leave it alone?

Just expose him to the lyric splendors of "La Bohe me," which will have an outing on public television tonight, and if he can't answer his own question after that, it's his problem and not Puccini's. Just let him listen to the richness of Puccini's melodic resources and the honesty of his emotions. And that's especially true, of course, if the bohemian poet Rodolfo is Luciano Pavarotti. In tonight's performance, recorded this spring in Philadelphia's Academy of Music, he joins with a cast of young, relatively unrenowned singers who were winners of the first Opera Company of Philadelphia/Pavarotti International Voice Competition.

It starts at about 8 on WETA and will last for three hours. It will be simulcast on WETA-FM, and also repeated on television at the same time Monday night.

It is a touching and dramatically impressive performance, directed stylishly by none other than Gian Carlo Menotti, who only a few months earlier staged The Washington Opera's even more lavish "Bohe me" production.

First, and foremost, there is Pavarotti. How is it that a man of his age and girth is still such an irresistible, absolutely superb Rodolfo? The biggest reason is the voice, which is the sort of lyric, ardent tenor that is exactly right for this part.

Next, there is his theatrical magnetism. Pavarotti wouldn't be Pavarotti without television and, regardless of whether he is singing Puccini or bantering with Carson, the closer the camera gets to him the more expressive he seems. In this part, which he calls "my first love" in one of the intermission features, it is not so much that he is subtle as that he is authoritative. Look at him tonight in the entire last half of act one, beginning with Mimi's entrance, and you will see an actor who knows that it is best to keep it simple, remain unaffected and focus tightly. With his personality, that's enough.

His singing, by the way, is lovely. For sure, it is not so free and easy as it once was, but that is now compensated for by his air of assurance.

None of the others in the cast is quite at this level, but Mary Jane Johnson as the flossy tart Musetta is an utter delight. From the moment she struts into the Christmas Eve party in the second act she dominates the show with her wit, her buxom physical presence and her fine singing. She's having a ball, and so will the viewer.

Brazilian soprano Leila Guimaraes, who is Rodolfo's beloved Mimi, is more subdued. She is fine dramatically, in her shy, forthright way. And she is beautiful, with her delicate profile and lovely dark hair drawn back in a bun. It is a believable characterization, without being vocally resplendent. Occasionally the voice gets a little edgy, but little harm is done. The shock of her changed appearance when she first appears as the sick Mimi at the opening of act three is startling.

None of the three bohemian roommates of Rodolfo has the kind of vocal or dramatic distinctiveness that they'd have in the best performances. As the painter Marcello, the most important of those roles, baritone Franco Sioli is especially bland and awkward.

Conductor Oliviero de Fabritiis keeps the iridescent score fluid, but it does not glow as it can.

One fly in the ointment: a spokesman for WETA says the station plans to go through its fund-raising exertions between acts. Plan to take a break yourself.