Always winter, never spring. No, not Narnia, but The Snow Maiden, Alexander Ostrovsky's 1873 fairy tale, rooted in Russian folklore, in which Snegurochka, daughter of Father Frost and Spring Beauty, is raised in winter’s icy grip. Tchaikovsky composed incidental music to the original play, but it's Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's operatic version (written in 1880-81) which is justly famous... in Russia. Opera North's new production is the first professional staging in the UK for over 60 years – Elsie Morrison in the title role at Sadler's Wells back in 1954 – so her return is cause for celebration.

Aoife Miskelly (Snegurochka) © Richard Hubert Smith
Aoife Miskelly (Snegurochka)
© Richard Hubert Smith

It is the opening production in the company's fairy tale season, although it's a very grown-up fable concerned with desire and heartbreak. The plot, like most fairy tales, is pretty straightforward. Snegurochka's parents allow her to enter the world of humans, where Lel, the shepherd boy (a mezzo trouser role), is besotted with her. But being made from snow, she is incapable of returning his love. Mizgir, a wealthy trader, also falls for her, even abandoning his bride-to-be, Kupava, who demands justice from Tsar Berendey. Mizgir is sent into exile, Kupava hooks up with Lel, while Snegurochka pleads with her mother to give her the power to love. Eventually pledging herself to Mizgir, she literally melts in his arms, leaving him clutching her empty bridal gown. The spell is broken and spring can return once more, the villagers hymning praise to the sun.

Elin Pritchard (Kupava) and Chorus © Richard Hubert Smith
Elin Pritchard (Kupava) and Chorus
© Richard Hubert Smith

John Fulljames, who previously directed the opera at Wexford in 2008, comes up with a fusion of make-believe and reality which feels a little tepid. Snegurochka is a seamstress in a clothes factory, which produces denim jeans as well as traditional Russian folk costumes. During her reveries whilst sitting at her sewing machine, mannequins of Father Frost and Spring Beauty come to life. We seem to drift aimlessly between past and present. Tsar Berendey is the 2017 'calendar boy', standing before a perpetually snowy landscape – whatever the month – on the frontcloth, but he seems to reign over the Soviet Union judging from the map behind him. The Prologue drags, James Creswell's excellent Father Frost repeatedly forced to scatter polystyrene chips around as snow, but things pick up with Lel, depicted as the factory hottie, and Kupava's frenzied attack on the unfaithful Mizgir, in which she tapes up his hands and mouth and tosses him into a giant cardboard box as retribution.

James Creswell (Father Frost), Aoife Miskelly (Snegurochka) and Yvonne Howard (Spring Beauty) © Richard Hubert Smith
James Creswell (Father Frost), Aoife Miskelly (Snegurochka) and Yvonne Howard (Spring Beauty)
© Richard Hubert Smith

However, Will Duke's video designs add true magic, giant snowflakes jostling down the scrim as if it were a window pane, tendrils of plants unfurling, sunflowers bursting open in the joyous finale. Sadly, Leo McFall doesn't always find the same magic in Rimsky's fabulous score, a series of vivid pagan pictures. Choruses lumber where they need to dance and the orchestral playing lacked sparkle. Minor cuts are understandable, whilst retaining the best music. The famous orchestral showpiece The Dance of the Tumblers is shunted forward to become a prelude to Act 3, with seamstresses industrious at their machines.

The singing on opening night was mixed. Aoife Miskelly's light, frothy soprano was perfect for Snegurochka, airy and agile in her coloratura entrance aria, fragile and affecting in the finale. As her dramatic counterpart, Elin Pritchard was in terrific voice as the feisty Kupava, played as a vodka-soaked jilted bride in a wedding dress resembling a giant Italian meringue, providing plenty of opportunities for comic exaggeration. Pritchard has a strong spinto soprano, remarkably even through her entire range, and a dramatic stage presence. Lel is gifted some of the best music, his three songs often framed by the clarinet's chromatic ululations as the shepherd's pipe. Heather Lowe's wiry mezzo and tomboy swagger did an admirable job, if not possessing the fruity Russian contralto sound usually encountered.

Heather Lowe (Lel) and Elin Pritchard (Kupava) © Richard Hubert Smith
Heather Lowe (Lel) and Elin Pritchard (Kupava)
© Richard Hubert Smith

American bass James Creswell was in resplendent voice – and his usual superb diction – as Father Frost, while Yvonne Howard warmed to her task as Spring Beauty, especially fine in her later scene as the elderly mother submits to her daughter's pleas. At 66 years old, Bonaventura Bottone is sentimental casting as Tsar Berendey, struggling with the treacherously high tessitura, but making a benevolent monarch. Phillip Rhodes' throaty baritone didn't really do justice to the romantic, lyrical lines of Mizgir, labouring through his aria. Other minor roles were not cast from vocal strength.

But despite uneven casting, it is always a joy to hear Rimsky's music and a mystery why more UK companies do not stage his operas, so hurry to catch this in Leeds or on tour before spring sunshine melts The Snow Maiden again.