Imagination and memory were key themes in an ingenious production of Eugene Onegin which opened at Sydney Opera House on Friday night. The main plot of the opera is simple but unusual: boy meets girl, girl falls in love with boy, boy rejects her; later on boy meets girl again, boy belatedly falls in love with now-married girl, girl still loves him but rejects him. While the poet Dante has said that there is no greater sorrow than to remember times of happiness in misery,  the tragedy here is that the characters can only imagine the happiness that never was and never will be theirs.

In Kasper Holten’s production (which had its première at Covent Garden last year), two thirds of Eugene Onegin takes place in a kind of flashback. As the melancholy orchestral introduction sounded, the singers mimed what clearly was the final encounter between the pair, with the exact same gestures used later in Act III. The large doors behind the singers were then opened, as if onto Tatyana’s past, and Act I took place in her memory. At times Nicole Car, as Tatyana, discarded her final scene clothing and became the young girl again. At others, a dancing double was used for the young Tatyana while her older self watched events unfold. This doubling of the character was particularly effective in Scene 2, where Tatyana writes a letter to Onegin. At this point, a younger dancing surrogate of the Onegin we had already seen appeared, the two engaging in a sensual dance, acting out Tatyana’s erotic daydreams. At one point, the older Tatyana embraced her younger self, breaking down the barriers between past and present in such a way as to suggest some kind of interior psychic reconciliation.

Where the first half of the opera focused mainly on Tatyana, the second was dominated by Onegin’s memories. The older man was a helpless spectator as his younger kills his friend Lensky in a duel. In more conventional productions it is hard to have much sympathy with the Byronic title character up to this point, but one felt much less alienated here, seeing the older character’s obviously tormented regrets. Normally an act break follows the fatal duel, but since the opera was broken into two rather than three parts, the Polonaise that opens Act III began without a pause. This should have been horribly jarring, but it was brilliantly utilised for a dream sequence in which Onegin vainly seeks comfort from a succession of women (played by ballet dancers). In the final scene, the older protagonists sing “happiness was in our grasp”, upon which their younger dancing surrogates enter to convey what might have been.

This brilliant concept was played out all on the same set, ingeniously varied by different projections onto the back wall (from a field of corn to a wood of silver birches at dawn) and by opening and shutting various mid-stage doors. The deliberate accumulation of defunct props – books, a swing and a sheaf of corn, broken furniture, the tree branch and snow from the duel scene, and even Lensky's dead body – was suggestive of piled up memories. This, however, was often confusing and even hazardous (dresses caught on the branch not once but twice).

The star in this cast was undoubtedly Nicole Car. She is young enough to convey the adolescent fragility of Tatyana winningly, but her portrayal of the older married woman was also convincing. She is already a cultivated artist, with a voice that is warm and expressive throughout its range, and her top notes were strong and unstrained. Dalibor Jenis as Onegin was a forceful presence from his first entry, and while solid throughout, he didn’t make as big an impact as his counterpart.

Perhaps the single most enthralling aria of the evening came from Konstantin Gorny as Prince Gremin, who melted the opera house as he expressed his love for his wife in a gloriously rich bass. Sian Pendry flirted nicely in the role of Olga, while James Egglestone grew into the role of Lensky, his big solo number before the duel delivered with the right amount of youthful desperation. Dominica Matthews provided a strongly characterised Madame Larina, while Jacqueline Dark underwhelmed a little as the nurse. Among the minor roles, Kanen Breen was as funny as ever in his cameo as Monsieur Triquet, delivering his rococo-style name-day salutations in a deliberately precious tone. The chorus was strong, and while the orchestra’s sound might not have had the full Tchaikovskian bloom, they were well marshalled by a batonless Guillaume Tourniaire.