The Washington Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker," as staged by artistic director Mary Day and former ballet master Martin Buckner, has been charming audiences for more than a quarter of a century. As last night's opening performance of this year's run at Lisner Audtorium showed, there's every sign that it will continue doing so for many more seasons.

The production is of a different order than the more sumptuous versions we've seen here from such larger companies as American Ballet Theatre and, currently, the Joffrey Ballet, which is showing its new staging at the Kennedy Center. The Washington Ballet "Nutcracker" combines an annual showcase for the students of Day's Washington School of the Ballet, mainly in Act 1, with professional-level dancing in principal roles by company members. It's this combination, along with the modest physical resources, that gives the production its homey, beamish air of unpretentiousness and conviviality. And these qualities, carefully tended and renewed each year, keep the staging amazingly fresh, in the evergreen spirit of Tchaikovsky's music and the Dumas-Hoffmann Christmas story.

There's something of a special poignancy about this year's performances. The company is still in mourning for its associate artistic director, Choo-San Goh, who died last month. He left his own touch on the staging, in the Chinese Dance of Act 2's divertissements, which he choreographed, using simple classical steps but also a typical Chinese ribbon dance, in place of the mock-Chinese cuteness one usually sees. It's a small thing, but a potent reminder of the artistic bounty he left the troupe.

Another circumstance puts one in mind of how remarkable a springboard the Washington Ballet has been for gifted dancers. Appearing last night as the Snow Queen and Snow Prince were Patricia Miller and James Canfield, who recently returned to the company after dancing for years as starring principals of the Joffrey Ballet (followed by a stint with Portland's Pacific Ballet Theatre). Canfield, who re-joined as a dancer and as assistant artistic director, is also now choreographing for the Washington Ballet.

The enchantment began last night, as it does every season, with the sight of the wonderfully gingerbready, gabled, snow-bedecked exterior of the Silberhaus home that is the master stroke of Richard Ferrer's otherwise unassuming set. Then there were the imaginative touches in the party scene, like the young lad who tastes the alcoholic punch and goes into a coughing fit; the children's tug of war; the delightful doll dances; the portrayal of Drosselmeyer (James Akers last night) as a jolly member of the family circle; and father Silberhaus' gift of a necklace to his wife, saved for the quiet moment when all the guests have departed.

Melanie Warner was the prettily diffident Clara. In the scene of her dream, the floppy-eared Mice looked as cuddly as ever. Canfield and Miller danced the Snow duet handsomely, depite Miller's still-ailing knee. Ricardo Moreira cut a fine figure as the Nutcracker and made a gem of his little mime scene. Noteworthy among the Act 2 divertissements were Kristina Windom and Canfield in the slinky Arabian variation; the brilliant tumbling by Rick Gonzalez as a Candy Cane; and the sprightliness of Kelli Martin and Terace Jones leading the Mirlitons. Elizabeth Guerin was the stylish, technically polished Sugar Plum Fairy, and John Goding her gracious Cavalier.

Conductor William Hudson led the orchestra in a particularly hearty account of the familiar score last night, choosing comfortably leisurely tempos in keeping with the spirit of the production, but also remaining sensitive to the rhythmic spice and melodic warmth the music warrants.