BERKELEY -- Composer Nolan Gasser has described "The Secret Garden" as "a trip from darkness to light." That neatly sums up his new opera, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's novel about an orphan whose shrinking world opens up and blooms as she discovers the vitality of Mother Nature.

Unfortunately, Gasser handles the light better than the darkness -- and it takes a good long while for the sun to shine through "The Secret Garden," which premiered Friday at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley. Commissioned by San Francisco Opera, this family production struggles through its first hour or more, lurching from plot point to plot point, with music that feels cramped and awkwardly stitched together until Gasser's lyricism finally peeps through. A misfire, it too often lacks the key ingredient of Burnett's famous tale: wonder.

It's a shame, because this opera (co-presented by Cal Performances) would seem to have so much going for it, beginning with its century-old story about little Mary Lennox, the orphan who is healed by nature amid the Yorkshire moors.

Led by sparkle-toned soprano Sarah Shafer, who charms as Mary, the young cast is superb, making the most of Gasser's intermittent offerings. Bass-baritone Philippe Sly (as Archibald Craven, Mary's uncle) has an oak-sturdy voice and can put across a love song. Mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm (as Martha Sowerby, Mary's governess), sings with breezy refinement and velvety tone. (She and Sly hail from San Francisco Opera's Adler Fellowship Program.) Tenor Scott Joiner (as Dickon Sowerby, Mary's friend) is a bubbling performer, as is tenor Michael Kepler Meo (as Colin, Archibald's son and Mary's cousin). Meo is spunky and charismatic -- and only 14.

The creative team is intriguing: Gasser is architect of the Music Genome Project, the technology underlying Pandora Radio, while librettist Carey Harrison is a prolific novelist and playwright (and the son of actor Rex Harrison). What's more, the production is visually lush and technologically innovative.

Naomi Kremer's sets are digitally projected images: of the mysterious moors; of the creepy moonlit mansion where Mary is sent after her parents die; of her blooming garden and its resident robin, who becomes Mary's muse. (Gasser scores the robin's song for flute, whose hopping lines make for some of the opera's simplest and most attractive music.) With its high-tech spectacle and classic pedigree, "The Secret Garden," directed by Jose Maria Condemi, is a marketable venture: Friday's audience included many young adults, teenagers and parents with children, not your usual opera crowd.

Sarah Shafer, as Mary Lennox, rehearses a scene during a rehearsal for a collaborative production of "The Secret Garden" by Cal Performances and
Sarah Shafer, as Mary Lennox, rehearses a scene during a rehearsal for a collaborative production of "The Secret Garden" by Cal Performances and S.F. Opera at Zellerbach Hall on the University of California campus in Berkeley on Wednesday, Feb. 27. (Kristopher Skinner / Bay Area News Group)

In case you don't know it, here's the story: A spoiled and snotty child, Mary is raised in India, where her parents -- British aristocrats -- die of cholera. That's when she is shipped off to live with her Uncle Archibald Craven, whose gloomy Yorkshire estate is known as Misselthwaite Manor. Heartbroken by his young wife's death years earlier, Craven is withdrawn, ignoring everyone on the premises -- even son Colin, who lies in bed, crying, convinced that he is an invalid.

Enter Mary, whose kindhearted governess, Martha, incites the child to quit her bedroom and explore the outdoors. Mary stumbles on the lost key to the estate's secret garden, which becomes the staging ground for her own healing and redemption, as well as for Colin's -- and Uncle Archibald's, too.

The opera begins with a prologue, set in India, and a sashaying anthem for full ensemble. It's part Sondheim and part modal jazz, tinged with the sinuous melodicism of "the East." But once cholera strikes, the score dissolves into a dark mist, and Gasser therein loses his footing. There's some edgy lyricism and declamatory speech song; the usual fallbacks for new operas. And there's much clunky writing for the 10-piece orchestra, conducted by Sara Jobin, which performed as if mystified by the notes on the page.

Gasser, who describes his essentially tonal style as pan-modality, operates with a limited vocabulary here. The same dodging rhythmic moves keep recurring through the first act, along with the same fitful melodic and harmonic gestures; there's little development to reflect Mary's increasingly robust health, her moral growth or the spaciousness of the outdoors. Even when she enters the secret garden for the first time, the scoring is strangely tamped down, monochromatic and lacking in suspense.

About a third of the way into the second (and last) act, things change. Archibald remembers his wife with a love song. (Sly put this piercing ballad across with heart.) Then Gasser trots out several appealing duets. One is for Mary and Colin, who vows to get out of bed and "run, run, run!" Another is for Archibald and Mary's mentor Susan Sowerby (deep-colored Adler soprano Marina Harris), who describes Mary's newfound goodness. Finally, Colin -- out of his wheelchair and on his feet -- sings, "I'll make a man yet!" You can whistle this number, which evolves toward the full ensemble's uplifting finale, set against Kremer's eye-popping backdrop of the garden in spring bloom.

In these final scenes -- somewhere in the territory of Sondheim, again, or "The Fantasticks" -- Gasser is hitting his stride. But there's still something workshop-like and strung-together about the work's pacing. Opera is a difficult medium, and this is the first time Gasser and Harrison have given it a shot. If they take their opera back to the drawing board, they may yet put some magic into this garden.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him at Twitter.com/richardscheinin

'The Secret Garden'

An opera by Nolan Gasser and Carey Harrison; based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett

When: March 2, 3, 9 and 10
Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
Tickets: $15-$80; 415-864-3330, 510-642-9988, www.sfopera.com, www.calperformances.org