France may still be declasse to some folks in Washington, but, for at least the next few months, all things French will be warmly embraced throughout the Kennedy Center. The Festival of France, opening this week, promises a broad sampling of the country's cultural heritage, including classical music, jazz, theater, dance and film.
In typical Kennedy Center fashion, the festival will offer several heady stars, among them luminous soprano Renee Fleming and indelible actress Jeanne Moreau, and will even make a little history. One of the principal attractions is the U.S. debut of the Opera-Comique, the Paris company that can trace its roots back nearly 200 years and that gave the premieres of such masterworks as Bizet's Carmen and Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann.
The National Symphony Orchestra's participation in the fest begins tonight with the first in a series of programs that will explore the remarkable variety and color of French repertoire, from Chabrier, Debussy and Satie to Messiaen, Boulez and young French composer Jean-Jacques Di Tucci. All of these programs will be led by NSO music director Leonard Slatkin, who suggested the idea of a festival after attending a production of a Moliere play in Paris a few years ago. "There will be a lot of interesting things for us and for the audience," the conductor says.
Of particular note in the performances tonight, tomorrow afternoon and Saturday night is a semi-staged presentation of Ravel's endearing one-act opera L'Enfant et les Sortileges (text by Colette). Also slated is Saint-Saens' Violin Concerto No. 3 with NSO concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, one of the most intellectually and technically brilliant pianists on the contemporary scene, joins the NSO to perform a variety of repertoire (including some solo pieces) in the course of three different programs. One particularly novel concert (Jan. 23) will find Aimard playing the original keyboard version of Ravel's brilliantly atmospheric Gaspard de la nuit, followed by a new orchestration by Marius Constant of this quintessentially pianistic score. "I always thought this music couldn't be orchestrated," Slatkin says. "But when I was shown the score, I thought, this guy really did it."
The more whimsical side of French music will be the focus of an NSO program on Jan. 29 that offers, among other things, Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals and Poulenc's The Story of Babar the Little Elephant (with Slatkin as narrator). The sibling team of Katia and Marielle Labeque will be featured in Poulenc's exquisite Concerto for Two Pianos.
Fleming's festival appearances will begin with what Slatkin says is "as close to a gala as we get" on Jan. 30. The soprano will sing Ravel's evocative Sheherazade and arias from Massenet's Manon with the orchestra, and songs by Debussy and Faure accompanied by another top-drawer guest, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Fleming will repeat the Ravel and Massenet works on Jan. 31. That's not all. On Feb. 3, Fleming and equally stellar mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will celebrate "The Art of the French Song" in a dual recital, accompanied by pianist Steven Blier.
In other vocal activity at the festival, audiences will get to hear the prized baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants performing one-act operas by Charpentier Feb. 3 and the Opera-Comique performing Offenbach's snappy operetta La Vie Parisienne Feb. 17-22.
The Kennedy Center's Fortas Chamber Music Concerts will present an all-Ravel program by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio Feb. 4; a performance of Messiaen's complete Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jesus by pianist Christopher Taylor Feb. 18; and a Debussy-Messiaen bill featuring clarinetist Paul Meyer, violinist Renaud Capucon, cellist Gauthier Capucin and pianist Frank Braley Feb. 26.
The Lyon Opera Ballet will dance a new work by Philippe Decoufle April 8-10. The festival's drama side includes the Theatre de Lorient's production of La Bete dans la Jungle (in French, with English surtitles) Feb. 12-14. And Compagnie Hendrick van der Zee will present Les Sublimes, a multi-media mix of dance, theater, acrobatics and video, Feb. 19-21.
A jazz series (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Michel Legrand, et al.), programs for children and families, and a French film festival (including a retrospective of Moreau's work with the actress attending) are also part of the lineup. Even the Kennedy Center's restaurants will get into the act with some French food and wine on their menus.
"It's a real center-wide festival," Slatkin says, "utilizing all the resources of the center. People will have a chance to sample so many different things. And maybe this will help us finally achieve peace with the French. Who knows?"