"Is everything in Second City wonderful?" a friend asks. "Sometimes you sound like you think so." Well, I don't go out of my way to subject myself (or you) to pointless pain and suffering, which is why this column tends to dwell on the good stuff and skip over the junk. One of these days, I may spend a whole month going to performances I expect to loathe, just to prove I'm not a pushover. Alas, I liked everything I saw in December, so if you're looking to rumble, you've turned to the wrong page.

I certainly can't complain about Berry-Hill Galleries' "High Notes of American Modernism: Selections From the Tommy and Gill LiPuma Collection," at which I saw nine remarkable paintings by Arnold Friedman. If you've never heard of Friedman, who died in 1946, you're not alone. So far as I know, none of his work is currently hanging in any museum (though the Museum of Modern Art owns a good Friedman, "Sawtooth Falls"), and he almost never gets written up nowadays. Clement Greenberg, long the top handicapper of American art, praised his late paintings to the skies, calling them "an important moment in the history of American painting." Strong words, coming from the critic who put Jackson Pollock on the map -- yet even his fervent advocacy wasn't enough to keep Friedman's name alive.

To understand how good Friedman was, take a long look at "Still Life (Petunias)," the prize of the LiPuma collection. In the foreground is a vase of flowers whose vibrantly colored petals all but burst off the canvas. (The thick, crusty surface was heavily worked with a palette knife.) Hanging on the wall immediately behind the vase is the lower half of an abstract painting -- Friedman's way of underlining the subtle relationship between abstraction and representation. The juxtaposition of the two genres is both witty and thought-provoking, unveiling fresh layers of implication at every glance.

I was amazed to learn that "Still Life (Petunias)" was owned by Tommy and Gill LiPuma. If their names ring a bell, it's because you probably know Tommy in a different guise: He's a big-time record producer, the man who helped put Diana Krall on the charts. I've met him once or twice, but I had no idea that he and his wife were interested in art, much less that they were true connoisseurs whose independent-minded taste has inspired them to assemble what is almost certainly the largest private collection of Friedmans in the world.

The LiPuma collection also contains 22 paintings by Alfred Maurer, a gifted American modernist who is as persistently underrated as Friedman, plus fine works by Arthur Dove, John Graham, Marsden Hartley, Walt Kuhn, John Marin and Joseph Stella. Alas, the show is no longer on view, but perhaps the Phillips Collection could be persuaded to bring it to Washington. Arnold Friedman, after all, was Duncan Phillips's cup of tea -- a color-drunk representationalist who flirted daringly with abstraction -- and it would be altogether fitting if the best small museum in America were to open its doors to the least-known major American painter of the 20th century.

Speaking of names you need to know, here's another one: Patricia Racette, the star of the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites." Racette is no matinee idol, but in a better-regulated world she would be as famous as Renee Fleming. She is that rarity of rarities, a first-class operatic actress -- she wouldn't need to sing a note in order to grab an audience by the throat -- and she was wholly compelling as Blanche de la Force, who enters a nunnery to escape the world and suddenly finds herself faced with the prospect of unsought martyrdom.

Poulenc's opera, which tells the tale of a group of cloistered nuns who are guillotined en masse at the height of the French Revolution, is one of the supreme masterpieces of modern religious art, and this harrowing production, originally directed in 1977 by the late John Dexter, ranks with Mark Lamos's "Wozzeck" and Elijah Moshinsky's "Queen of Spades" as the strongest piece of theater the Met has put onstage in the past quarter-century. It was especially impressive in this superlatively well-cast revival, which also featured Felicity Palmer as Madame de Croissy, the old prioress who loses her faith on her deathbed, and Heidi Grant Murphy as Constance, the sweetly naive postulant who faces terror with childlike joy. How disappointing, then, that so gripping an opera received only six performances! Maybe Joe Volpe, the Met's we-do-it-my-way general manager, knew how trivial some of the company's more recent productions look by comparison with "Dialogues."

Just as noteworthy was Hilary Hahn's Carnegie Hall recital debut. Hahn might just be the finest young violinist to come along since, oh, Itzhak Perlman, and I can't remember when I've heard anything so unaffectedly poetic as her performance of Schubert's A Major Sonata, accompanied to perfection by Natalie Zhu. Hahn is musically wise beyond her 22 years -- she caught all the sardonic punch lines of Debussy's G Minor Sonata, a piece normally accessible only to very mature players -- and though I'm not fond of prodigies, I'd bet money that this one is in it for the long haul.

Given all the hoopla over Rob Marshall's film version of "Chicago," I thought it'd be interesting to drop into the Shubert Theater to see how the stage version of that corrosively cynical musical is looking after a six-year run. Quite good, I'm pleased to say -- Charlotte d'Amboise dances up a storm as Roxie Hart -- and the same can be said of the equally long-running revival of "Cabaret" at Studio 54. I was hoping to catch Raul Esparza as the Emcee, having been knocked off my pins by his contributions to the Sondheim Celebration, but he took the night off, leaving the role in the hands of his terrific understudy, Vance Avery, who reeked of sleazy charm. Molly Ringwald is Sally Bowles, and you know what? She's really good.

Last, New Yorkers reveled in "The Hard Nut" for the first time in nine years. It usually plays in California at Christmastime, but this year the Mark Morris Dance Group brought Morris's updated "Nutcracker" to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, doubtless to celebrate the first birthday of the company's new home just across the street. The first-act Christmas party scene, set in a comic book version of a '70s suburb, is a happy romp (yes, that's Morris as the drunken guest), and the second act tiptoes stealthily from silly camp to open-hearted warmth. I couldn't think of a nicer way to send myself home for the holidays.

Friedman's "Still Life (Petunias)": First-rate work from a color-

drunk representationalist who flirted daringly with abstraction.