Some composers are unlucky to be known as one-work wonders. Otto Nicolai probably deserves it. The last of his five operas, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is the only one still in the repertory and a clever mix of German and Italian styles, something Wagner had already tried without success.

In practice, that means an important role for the orchestra and some pretty, but tricky, vocal decoration for the principal ladies. York Opera’s new production, masterminded by Clive Marshall, is equal to both challenges. Derek Chivers, at the helm of the orchestra for the first time, keeps a steady momentum with authority, and the ladies – the merry wives – are pleasingly versatile.

John Soper's tall moveable flats arrange neatly to make a housescape, a garden or the Garter Inn. For the all-important final scene, he conjures a modernistic, overarching trellis, lit by an outsize moon. Maggie Soper’s colourful costumes are Elizabethan, traditional for the ladies, amusingly effete for the would-be male lovers.

Shakespeare’s story revolves around the comeuppance of Sir John Falstaff, the tubby, bibulous squire who imagines his charms irresistible to the fairer sex. Steve Griffiths is engagingly laid-back in the role, tripping spryly despite his “weight” and despatching his drinking song with basso relish.

Tracey Bowen’s Mrs Ford gets things off to a lively start. She has unusually expressive eyes, and her facial expressions enhance her lithe soprano. She rivals Falstaff as the mainstay of the evening. Catherine Thornton’s shyer Mrs Page is slower out of the blocks, but peaks with her charming Act 3 ballad.

As the newest of the wives – and latest recruit to the company – Harriet Pridmore’s Anne Page is a find. Every note of her taxing aria is delivered with conviction and assurance, the coloratura firmly in place, and she blends beautifully with Karl Reiff’s Fenton in their duet. Reiff’s own aria is notable for its smooth line and his upper range is fearless.

Ian Thomson-Smith makes intelligent use of his baritone as the irascible Ford, whereas Ian Small’s Page is a little reserved by contrast. Clive Goodhead enjoys himself as Dr Caius – he could indulge even more of a French accent – and Hamish Brown’s camp Slender is right on target.

The chorus really comes into its own in the last act, its opening number in particular nicely controlled.

Though violins had not quite settled on opening night, orchestral zest is everywhere undeniable. Ordinary speech needs to be generally crisper. But these are mild reservations in a show brimming with tunefulness and humour.

Further performances tomorrow and Saturday.

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