Eugene Onegin is one of the greatest of all operas, both musically and dramatically: Tchaikovsky's temperament and compositional proclivities find in the libretto the perfect characters and subject matter such that his particular genius is allowed to flourish and bloom, more fully and voluptuously than he ever managed before or after in the genre of opera.

The verse of Pushkin's original text is beautifully matched by the restraint of Tchaikovsky's score, offering a sort of Mozartian clarity to the highly emotionally charged (though never melodramatic) tone of the piece – every musical phrase is a perfectly sculpted line of poetry, the structure and emotional impact cumulative in the same way as its written source material. As in Mozart too, each ripple of emotion quivers in fleeting musical gesture, whilst never detracting from the musical continuity and flow and beauty of surface. The result is remarkably pure and passionate, and feels intimate and small-scale in an age of Wagner's Totalkunst juggernauts and Verdi's grand human statements.

James Conway's 2007 production, here revived for the first time, is very economic with stage materials – all we have is a mirror that bisects the stage, a few apple tree branches, a bed, and a couple of chairs. The central mirror is sometimes used as a division between inside and outside with the help of backlighting, but more often is symbolic of a character's inner reflection at key points in the drama. With so little to create a sense of atmosphere or place, the focus shifts squarely to the characters, which is entirely fitting for this opera; luckily, most are good enough actors to pull it off, and the music is so evocative, of course, that we never feel cheated in this regard. The costumes suggest the Regency era in which the story was originally set, though oddly no-one has Regency-style hair. Strange too that the the Act I peasant chorus is cut, though the mix of youthful gaiety, life, and yearning melancholy of the first and second acts still comes across.

The contrast with the ennui and chilly restraint of palace life in the third act is quite shocking – the dancing here lacks passion and verve, the people are sated, disengaged and joyless. Gremin's aria in praise of his wife is delivered without the swelling pride and warmth that we expect – indeed, he seems to be almost in tears. Even the sensitive Tatyana has been cooled by court life and the disappointments of adulthood. The climactic final scene, one of the great scenes in opera, is underplayed, and while certainly moving, one wished perhaps that there had been more connection between the characters at this crucial moment. Overall it's not a flawless production, but it does get to the core of the piece, and has some interesting things to say about the work.

Sarah-Jane Davies has a lovely and very expressive lyric voice that doesn't lack for power, especially above the stave. What made her assumption of the role of Tatyana most remarkable though was her understated and very moving acting, convincingly bookish and quietly passionate when we first see her as a young woman, and then poised and colder than we usually see her during her fateful later encounter with Onegin. This, coupled with her unshowy and subtle vocal acting, created a beautifully rounded and believable figure on stage.

Nicholas Lester's Onegin was very well sung, though the timbre is not at all the deep, moody, Slavic sound that we usually expect in this role – he sounds to me like a young Verdi baritone, the timbre ringing and Italianate with a radiantly easy top that almost made it into Lensky territory. He also actually looks like the young man that Onegin is supposed to be, though he didn't quite capture Onegin's veiled reserve and brooding mysteriousness. Unfortunately, Jaewoo Kim couldn't do justice to Lensky's histrionics, the vocal timbre rather unattractive in the upper register.

All four of the principal female roles require a very solid low register. Frances McCafferty as Filipyevna didn't really have the depth of sound required. Occasionally I also wished for a few more chest tones from Davies' Tatyana, and this is my only (slight) criticism of her really – this is a very low-lying soprano role. Niamh Kelly's richly coloured voice made for an excellent Olga and she provided a charmingly gleeful foil to Davies' Tatyana. I also very much liked Harriet Williams' Larina, again firm and beautiful throughout her range.

On this first night, the small ETO orchestra seemed reticent without the safety of numbers, which meant that the score's passionate intensity sometimes felt a little undernourished: a little more Slavic rawness would have been appreciated, and might even have been more effective with the small corpus of strings than with a deluxe romantic pit orchestra. Conductor Michael Rosewell kept things fleet and pacy, which didn't at all detract from the finely-wrought emotional paroxysms of the score.

Catch it if you can – this is an extraordinary bargain, and one of the best things that English Touring Opera has done for a while. You will not regret it.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin | English Touring Opera, at Hackney EmpireCapriccio reviews Eugene Onegin with English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire4