For the third year in a row since the world premiere here, American Ballet Theatre raised the curtain on Mikhail Baryshnikov's production of "The Nutcracker" last night at the Kennedy Center. The sweet radiance of the ballet and its justly celebrated Tchaikovsky score coalesced in an opening performance tempered by affection and gentility.

Baryshnikov wasn't present in the flesh, of course-somewhat ironically, he's now occupied in performances of the same ballet in George Balanchine's version with the New York City Ballet. But the modesty, intelligence and warmth of the production seemed to tinge the air with his spirit.

The essence of Baryshnikov's transformation of this Christmas tale is the presentation of Clara, not as a child, but on the verge of an adolescent awakening to love. In the second act, she is no longer a spectator, as in more traditional versions, but the central participant. The inspiration high point of the ballet, the pas de trois in which Clara dances with both her Nutcracker Prince and Drosselmeyer, the giver and taker of dreams, captures all the poignancy of our human reluctance to trade dream for reality.

The entire first part is ruled by the idea of premonition. The prologue which foreshadows the whole story; the marionettes which hint at the magic dolls to come; the party guests who become intimidating mice; Clara's little trio with the Nutcracker and Drosselmeyer, adumbrating the pas de trois; and a range of charcteristic steps and combinations in the party scene which suggest the enriched choreography later on-all these fit the scheme and knit together the action and meaning.

Last night's cast, led by Marianna Tcherkassky as Clara and Fernando Bujones as the Nutcracker-Prince, was a felicitously matched one, and if it did not touch all possible emotional chords, it's one of the charms of the production that it vibrates differently with each new set of dancers.

Tcherkassky, the first Clara in 1976, gave the role her accustomed tenderness and lucidity; her Sugar Plum variation was genuniely magical. Bujones was a disarmingly boyish, storybook Prince and his dancing soared. Alexander Minz, with his slightly sinister overtones, made Drosselmeyer the animating spirit of the whole ballet. Marcos Paredes' Mouse King was as droll as ever.

The doll dances of the first act and the divertissements of the second were enchantingly set forth. John Lanchberry led the orchestra with a sure, meticulous hand, though the score could have used somewhat more lyrical expansion here and there.