WITH ART-ROCK BANDS Radiohead and Sigur Ros's performance on tape, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's "Split Sides" at the Clarice Smith Center won't have quite the panache of its thronged live-music opener last year in New York. But the revered Cunningham himself will attend the performances this week, presiding over the "chance operations" he built into this abstract, ever-changing production. An onstage roll of the dice will determine which band's music will be heard first and which segment of choreography will be performed first, as well as the order of the set, lighting and costume designs. Cunningham is never predictable, never conventional. The program will also include his "Ground Level Overlay," whose reverberating musical score was recorded inside an empty water tank.
-- Sarah Kaufman
At the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park. Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m. $35. Call 301-405-ARTS or visit www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.
THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA opens its 2004-05 season on Saturday with a staging of "Andrea Chenier," Umberto Giordano's meditation on the blood-drenched Reign of Terror that was the culmination of the French Revolution. Tenor Salvatore Licitra -- who won headlines and plaudits when he substituted for Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera a couple of years back -- will star as the doomed poet Chenier. The cast will also include soprano Paoletta Marrocu. Placido Domingo, who was once a distinguished Chenier himself, will conduct the Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
-- Tim Page
At the Kennedy Center Opera House. Saturday night at 7. The opera will be repeated with differing casts and conductors on Sept. 14, 17, 20, 23 and 26 and Oct. 2. $100-$1,180 for opening night gala performance, $45-$290 for other dates. Call 202-295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org.
THE THING ABOUT James McNeill Whistler isn't just how much better his art has been looking lately. (After almost a century spent mostly in the shadows, he's now got shows all over, and they've been getting lots of praise.) The surprising thing is how quickly he got that good. The Freer Gallery's latest selection from its unmatched Whistler holdings shows him making wonderful art almost from the start of his career. The Freer recently put out Whistler's first portfolio of etchings, published in 1858 and known as the "French Set." It looks like the work of someone with a lifetime of art-making behind him -- not someone who is just getting warmed up.
-- Blake Gopnik
"Young Whistler: Early Prints and the 'French Set' "
is at the Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW, through March 13. Open daily 10 a.m.- 5:30 p.m. Free. Call 202-633-4880 or visit www.asia.si.edu.
SILICONE SUPERHERO PAMELA ANDERSON -- able to tame pop's baddest boys with just a giggle and a wiggle -- sure put a hurtin' on ex-fiance Kid Rock. Ever since he canoodled with the former Baywatcher, the former "American Bad Ass" (aka Bob Ritchie) has been far less edgy, mostly abandoning the rock-and-rap braggadocio that made him famous for such southern-fried clunkiness as a remake of Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love" and a dusty duet with Sheryl Crow. Lousy at the mushy stuff, Rock belongs in a hard place, and such arena-size hell-raisers as "Bawitdaba" and "Cowboy" -- both from 1998's swaggering "Devil Without a Cause" -- are still highlights of his live shows. Just let her go, Kid. Just let her go.
-- Sean Daly
At Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. Thursday at 7:30 p.m. $25-$39. Call 800-551-SEAT or visit www.merriweathermusic.com.
F. MURRAY ABRAHAM is the guest star for an unusual event Saturday at George Mason University: a staged concert version of "Nathan the Wise," an 18th-century comedy whose message of interdenominational understanding is tailor-made for our times. The performance, directed by Tom Prewitt, features many members of the cast who appeared in the play during its well-received run with the school's Theater of the First Amendment three years ago. Before the performance, Georgetown professor John Esposito, a leading scholar on Islam, will give a talk.
-- Peter Marks
At George Mason University's Center for the Arts, Braddock Road and Route 123, Fairfax. Saturday at 8 p.m. Pre-performance discussion at 7 p.m. $25. Call 703-218-6500 or visit www.gmu.edu/cfa.