Recent political tensions between the United States and France have caused anti-American demonstrations in France and some talk of boycotting French goods in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports politics have not diminished the interest of Americans in French art and culture.
The comic opera Beatrice et Benedict, based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, is the last work by French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz. This year, music companies around the United States have included Beatrice et Benedict in their repertory to mark the Berlioz bicentennial. The great Romantic composer was born 200 years ago. Paul Driscol, executive editor of Opera News magazine, says except for Beatrice et Benedict and some symphonic pieces, works of Berlioz are too monumental and too expensive for most companies to produce.
“He requires these massive effects in something like Les Troyens, which has got the Trojan horse and the fall of the city of Troy and the wonderful scenes that happen in Carthage when Aeneas lands there with Dido,” Mr. Driscol says. “And then of course the spectacular finale, when Dido mounts her own funeral pyre and is supposed to be consumed by the flames.”
During this bicentennial year, Americans will be able to enjoy some of the rarely performed Berlioz opus. New York’s Metropolitan Opera has staged a spectacular production of Les Troyens and is planning to revive his rarely performed Benvenuto Cellini next spring. The San Francisco opera will present The Damnation of Faust. But the intimate and more manageable Beatrice et Benedict, has been the Berlioz opera of choice for smaller companies, including many music schools around the country. Symphonie fantastique, which made Berlioz a musical role model for the Romantic century, is the most frequent choice of American orchestras that are observing the bicentennial.
Paul Driscol of the Opera News says another reason why few companies include Berlioz in their standard repertory is that his work requires highly specialized musicians. Sir Colin Davis, director of the London Symphony Orchestra is considered to be the world’s best living conductor for Berlioz. He conducted a series of Berlioz concerts at the Lincoln Center in New York earlier this month and will return to the United States next month for another performance of Beatrice et Benedict.
While the Berlioz bicentennial may represent a special treat for Americans this year, some other French works are regularly performed. Bizet’s Carmen is among the most popular, but a growing number of companies are looking to other French composers such as Massenet, Offenbach, Gounod and Poulenc.
Natalie Dessay, whose voice you just heard, is currently the best known French soprano. She is a frequent guest at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but this summer she will travel further West for a recital of French operatic arias at the Santa Fe Opera.
Santa Fe Opera opens this summer season with Offenbach’s comic opera La Belle Helene, featuring American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.
Mr. Driscol says the mezzo-soprano has is a natural gift for performing French music. “Susan Graham I think is one the most brilliant artists before the public today. And I think that she’s got some magical affinity for French music,” he says.
The French Ministry of Culture has recently conferred the prestigious distinction of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters on the acclaimed mezzo for her interpretation of French music. Another American recognized for his work with French music is conductor and musicologist William Christi. His efforts have led to a renewed appreciation of 17th and 18th-century French Baroque repertoire.
The musician, who lives and works in Paris, returns to the United States annually to introduce little known French music gems to an American audience. This year the Paris Opera has placed Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 18th century opera Les Boreades in the hands of William Christie and his renowned baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants. The group will perform it this summer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
In addition to concerts and theater performances, French art is a staple at many American museums and galleries. The National Gallery in Washington is currently exhibiting a collection of more than 200 works by French turn-of-the-century painter Edouard Vuillard. The Art Institute of Chicago is highlighting paintings of Georges Seurat in its permanent collection.
An exhibition of French impressionists from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris will be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas from early April through June. And art lovers in Colorado are waiting for some of the historically high snowdrifts to melt so they can return to the Pierre Bonnard exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. Bonnard is an early 20th century painter known for his decorative style and vibrant colors.
Gwen Chanzit is curator of modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum, one of the largest art museums in the American West. She says French art has always attracted a local audience, but according to the mail and telephone calls she has received, people are coming from afar to view Bonnard.
“We are delighted to be able to be one of only two venues in the United States to have this comprehensive exhibition of Pierre Bonnard,” Ms. Chanzit says. “There are 110 works from over 50 lenders, both public and private. We have many major works of art, such as The Terrace, which is a big, beautiful painting. We also have Dining Room in the Country, which is another major large work. We have three free-standing screens, a number of prints as well, including his early prints.”
In addition to individual cultural events, some institutions are organizing festivals celebrating French culture. The Kennedy Center of Performing Arts is planning a four-month long Festival of France that will bring French theater companies, dancers, movies and both classical and pop musicians to the nation's capital.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington in conjunction with the Alliance Francaise has just kicked off a month-long series of French concerts, lectures, theater and dance. Among the performers is Bnet Marrakesh, an all-female group of French-speaking singers from Morocco.
Many Americans are disappointed with the lack of French support for the U.S. war with Iraq. The congressional cafeteria on Capitol Hill has renamed French fries “freedom fries” and some congressmen suggested boycotting French goods. Earlier this month, the owner of Vasil's Euro Grill in Denver, Colorado, made news when he poured out bottles of expensive French wine. But avoiding French goods may hurt American businessmen more than the French exporters.
Cultural institutions, in contrast, don’t seem to face such a dilemma says Opera News editor Paul Driscol. “I think that because the nature of communication and the nature of national boundaries has changed and shifted so much in the past 50 years, those boundaries get erased,” he says.
Mr. Driscol says new technology has enabled artists to learn about artistry in other countries and excel in them if they choose. William Christie and Susan Graham, for example.
Gwen Chanzit of the Denver Art Museum adds, “I think that art surpasses political issues.”