Young man spurns the love of a good woman. Time passes. Man realises the error of his ways, but it is too late. It's not exactly the most taxing of plot lines, but in Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin turned it into a masterpiece. The genius is in the characterisation of the impetuosity of youth and its consequences, which turns this into a universal work: we have all had violent crushes, we have all had petulant quarrels, we have all been weary of life when it has maltreated us (or even if it has treated us too well), and we all have our regrets.

ENO Eugene Onegin © Neil Libbert
ENO Eugene Onegin
© Neil Libbert

Based on a verse novel that spans half a lifetime, Tchaikovsky's opera focuses on three episodes, with classical symmetry: the dreamy Tatyana throws herself at man-of-the-world Onegin, who rejects her; Onegin quarrels with his friend Lensky and kills him in a duel; years later, a world weary Onegin sees Tatyana, now a high society lady: he falls for her, but she rejects him. Within these episodes, we learn an awful lot about what it is like to be young, and about what it is like to be older and remorseful - with the assistance of an elegant, intense score that goes straight to the heart. It's not high romantic slush - there aren't the grand sweeping themes of Italian grand opera - but it's the more powerful for it.

Deborah Warner directs ENO's production (co-produced with the Met) with an all-seeing eye for detail. Tom Pye's sets and Chloe Obolensky's period costumes are jaw-dropping. Each scene is preceded by a landscape projected onto a screen the size of the full stage which places us straight into the location (idyllic farmland, frozen woods, the river Neva in St Petersburg). The farmhouse of the first act perfectly depicts the idyllic rural gentility, slightly faded, of the Larina family. The sunrise as Tatyana seals her letter is an exceptional piece of lighting. The Act II party for Tatyana's name day is quite beautifully directed: the costumes are gorgeous but not quite fashionable (Madame Larina, nostalgic for the good old days, hasn't bought a new dress for years, and it shows), the dances are fun but rather rustic, the children are happy and playful until servants have to shoo them away when things turn nasty. The duel is in a minimalist frozen forest, glistening with the pale light of dawn and the ball in St Petersburg is in an extraordinary set in which the dancers weave between eight giant marble columns - the costumes are opulent and the height of fashion, the Polonaise and Ecossaise danced with verve and elegance.

The cast was mostly excellent. Audun Iversen gave us a wonderful Onegin: strong, arrogant, clever, totally self-destructive. In an odd way, I barely noticed the music, because Iversen embedded it so completely into the character of the man. As Lensky, Toby Spence has his big moment in Act II in his reflective aria before the duel, which he sang ravishingly, sending me into dreamy distance. The weak link, for me, was Amanda Echalaz's Tatyana: the notes came out fine, but the words and actions did not. I would have been utterly lost without surtitles, and her acting gave me no sense either of youthful infatuation or of mature regret. I got more out of Claudia Huckle's pretty and vacant Olga.

The smaller roles were all sung well. I particularly enjoyed Adrian Thompson's comic cameo as Monsieur Triquet, the ghastly poet called upon to eulogise Tatyana on her name day. But my highlight of the evening was Brindley Sherratt singing Prince Gremin's Act III aria in which he describes his love for Tatyana: Sherratt was gloriously strong, romantic and thoroughly musical in an aria that has ferociously difficult phrases; he also spanned the demanding range from high to low Fs with aplomb. Sherratt received huge bravos, not least, one might guess, from any bass singers in the audience: basses don't get many romantic arias, and it's wonderful to hear one done quite so beautifully.

This is a production extremely faithful to the spirit of Pushkin, and well worth going to. It's worth getting there early and reading most of ENO's excellent programme notes, which do a lot to help illuminate the opera and its background, and if you have time, it's worth reading Pushkin's original (there are free copies online). I only managed a few stanzas in the interval: they were marvellous and I shall be reading the whole thing now. But even without that last measure of preparation, this was a thoroughly memorable evening at the opera.