ART

England's Tony Cragg is an alchemist of sorts. Looking at his art, one imagines him surrounded by furnaces and fires, by beakers and alembics. His sculptures speak of colored smokes and arcane incantations. They cast a kind of spell on the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The museum once looked different every time you entered, its changing exhibitions once flowed into the atrium. But not in recent years. "Tony Cragg: Sculpture 1975-1990," on view through March, activates that grand front hall, rattling its quietudes, unsettling its spaces. Cragg's pestles, flasks and flagons have challenged its tall columns. His unexpected colors -- the blues of lapis lazuli, the glints of antiqued bronze, the dull blacks of worn tires -- have prodded its old grayness. Moribund so long, the atrium seems alive again. CLASSICAL The Washington Opera will return to the Kennedy Center Opera House from the Eisenhower Theater on Saturday night with a new production of Massenet's "Manon" starring Nellie Miricioiu. Other noteworthy programs of vocal music this week include: the Alexandria Choral Society, performing Handel's "Esther," Saturday at Tifereth Israel Congregation, and next Sunday at Agudas Achim Congregation; baritone Robert Merrill, with the U.S. Air Force Band, today in Constitution Hall; Hesperus, with soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, exploring the English roots of American music, today at Meridian House International; baritone Jerome Barry and pianist Alan Mandal, Saturday night at the German Embassy; the Shenandoah Conservatory Choir, tonight in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater; Henry Burroughs, baritone, Thursday noon at Mount Vernon College; Christine Walser, contralto, Thursday night at the Swiss Embassy; Paul Hill's Washington Singers, Thursday night at the Organization of American States; the Laurel Oratorio Society, Valentine's Day concert, Saturday night at St. Nicholas Catholic Church.

Mstislav Rostropovich will conduct the National Symphony Orchestra this week, and there will be a Prelude Concert of chamber music by NSO members at 7 p.m. before the Thursday night concert. Visiting orchestras will include the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with guest guitarist Christopher Parkening, tonight at George Mason University; the U.S.S.R. State Symphony, today at the Kennedy Center Opera House; and the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg, Friday night at the Concert Hall. Among local orchestras, the Handel Festival Orchestra will perform Friday and Saturday nights and play a children's program Saturday morning in the Terrace Theater; the Georgetown Symphony will play today in Gaston Hall. There will be two performances of Beethoven's seldom-performed Triple Concerto this week, by the Arlington Symphony at Bishop O'Connell High School and the Alexandria Symphony at T.C. Williams High School.

Pianists of the week: Emanuel Ax, Monday at the University of Maryland; William Bloomquist, today at the Lyceum.

The Juilliard String Quartet will highlight the week's chamber music, tonight at the National Gallery. Also worth noting: the Capitol Woodwind Quintet, with pianist Christine Debus, tonight at Strathmore Hall; the Washington Bach Consort, presenting "The Bach Family and Friends," today at the National Presbyterian Church; the U.S. Marine Chamber Ensemble, today at the Marine Barracks; Hexagon, woodwind and piano, today at the Phillips Collection; Eleana Mendoza, cello, Monday at Strathmore Hall; CUA Chamber Ensemble, Tuesday at Catholic University; the Smithson String Quartet, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Renwick Gallery; the Friday Morning Music Club, Wednesday and Friday noon at the Sumner School; Nayiri Kredian-Poochikian, violin, 1 p.m. Wednesday in the World Bank Auditorium; Prevailing Winds, Wednesday night in the Terrace Theater; National String Quartet, Friday night in Little Falls Presbyterian Church; Eduardo Fernandez, guitar, Friday night at National Presbyterian Church; Bruce Myers, violin, Ignacio Alcover, cello, and Kathryn Brake, piano, Friday night at the French Embassy. DANCE With the winter dance season in full swing, the week's best bets are unusually diverse: American Ballroom Theater ending its run at the Eisenhower Theater this afternoon; the Black History Month Concert at Dance Place this afternoon featuring Washington dancers, choreographers and performance artists; Donald Byrd's dance-theater piece "Honey Chil' Milk," continuing its run at Baltimore's Theatre Project this afternoon and Wednesday through Sunday (through Feb. 23); the Washington Ballet in works by Ray Barra (a world premiere), Nils Christe and Choo-San Goh, at the Eisenhower Theater Wednesday through Saturday; the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre, Thursday through Saturday; the three Black History Month Concerts at Dance Place next weekend featuring African Heritage Dancers & Drummers Friday night, Memory of African Culture and Mamaya African Jazz Saturday night, and Wo'se Dance Theatre Sunday afternoon; the eighth annual Choreographers Showcase at Publick Playhouse Friday night; Canada's Desrosiers Dance Theatre, inaugurating the dance series at George Mason University's new Center for the Arts Concert Hall; and Jamaican-born dancer-choreographer Thomas Pinnock in his Africa-Reggae performance piece at Publick Playhouse Saturday night. POP MUSIC Jerry Butler, forever the Iceman but these days also an emerging Chicago politico, is at Blues Alley Tuesday through Sunday.

Ireland's Maura O'Connell has benefited from her long stay in Nashville, and her last two records are the classics that Linda Ronstadt fans wish she could still make. At the Barns on Thursday.

Witty Roger Miller, King of the Road and all that, is at the Birchmere on Saturday.

Randy Weston, one of the most confident and eloquent pianists in the jazz idiom, is at the Barns on Saturday.