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Alain Vanzo (tenor) - Airs français
see end of review for details
rec. 1954 - 1962
Various orchestras and conductors - uncredited soprano in tracks 4 and 12.
MALIBRAN CDRG 201 [80:20]

Let’s get the moaning out of the way first. The production values of this disc are really sloppy: no timings (the above are mine, derived from putting the disc into my laptop); no crediting of any conductors, orchestras or co-singers; no recording venues or dates beyond “1954 - 1962”; no libretto; no indication of whether a recording is live, mono or stereo - although obviously that becomes apparent as one listens.
 
However, if you read French, there is in the booklet an extensive, informative and quite polemical article by Roland Mancini assessing Vanzo’s career, a shorter biography translated into English and several nice photographs of the chubby Vanzo in his prime. Furthermore - and this is the raison d’être of the disc - on offer here is an anthology of one of the most engaging and attractive French lyric tenors of the second half of the 20th century.
 
Vanzo’s was a voice type once common and now virtually extinct. Going back into the great French tradition of the sweetly elegiac lyric tenor, however, one thinks of Edmond Clément, JosephRogatchevsky,  MiguelVillabella, Henri Legay, French-Canadian Léopold Simoneau, Michel Sénéchal, Eric Tappy and perhaps Roberto Alagna in his earlier years. Of modern exponents I can think offhand only of Jean-Luc Viala. It would seem that in many ways the vocal category died with Vanzo in 2002. In the interview from 1982 (track 15, in French), he remarks how the disappearance of opera troupes, the closure of institutions such as the Opéra-Comique and the Palais Garnier and the rise of the international “star system” have removed the traditional training grounds for young singers. He sang comprimario roles alongside great French tenors such as Thill, Luccioni and Jobin - and clearly learned from them all.
 
So there is all the more reason to prize this compilation, which, regardless of its significance to the history of French opera, presents some of the most sheerly elegant and engaging tenor singing on record. I have played it many times since its arrival only a few days ago and each time find myself more in admiration of the singer’s finesse. It is not a big voice and there is a certain nasal, grainy quality about it typical of a singer who sang exclusively in French, but it is very beautiful within its Fach.
 
Yet for all his pre-eminence amongst French tenors of his generation, Vanzo never really gained the international recognition he deserved. Yes, he achieved great acclaim in 1960 when he appeared as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland in at the Palais Garnier, and again in 1965 when he partnered Montserrat Caballé in her Carnegie Hall debut in Lucrezia Borgia. He did eventually sing in the great houses of Europe and North and South America, but he sang only once on the stage of Met in 1977 as Faust, on tour with the Paris Opéra. Meanwhile other French-singing singers such as Gedda and Kraus gained the recording contracts and the big engagements in the greatest opera houses. During the interview, he ruefully observes, in his charming southern accent, that he was always the “go to” tenor in the event of another’s withdrawal or a casting crisis, yet although frequently called upon “pour sauver la situation”, he was never offered the opportunity to record Werther, eventually his signature role, as it was clearly not as commercially appealing as a recording made by a more internationally celebrated tenor. Nor was he especially happy with those comparatively few recordings he did make - such as Lakmé, with Sutherland, Mignon,with Marilyn Horne andLes pêcheurs de perles, with Cotrubas. Yet on the basis of the evidence here he need fear no invidious comparison with any rival.
 
The earliest recording comes from 1954, shortly after he had won first prize at Cannes. The voice is still very light so it is interesting to compare it with the aria from Werther recorded later. Vanzo wisely followed George Thill’s advice not to attempt the whole role on stage until he was forty. This perhaps accounts for the fact that he preserved his voice right up until his death aged 74, from complications following a stroke. He very gradually introduced heavier roles into his repertoire, so that in addition to the Werther aria we hear superb accounts of tenor arias from Benvenuto Cellini, Les vêpres siciliennes andDon Carlos,in which he has retained delicacy but added heft to his tone.
 
Vanzo’s singing is characterised by his pellucid diction, a superb messa di voce - as evinced by the diminuendo on the high C is the Faust aria and the smoothness of his legato. The selection here covers some of the most melodic arias in French opera before moving into the heavier items which Vanzo gradually undertook in accordance with the advice he received as a young singer. We veer between all kinds of acoustic and recording quality, the least sonically appealing being the Grétry number which distorts, but for the most part it’s all very listenable whether it’s in mono or stereo. The best sound comes in tracks 16 and 17, in the Werther and La Navarraise arias, which also represent the peak of Vanzo’s art, so delicately yet passionately sung with just the right amount of “les larmes dans la voix”. The audience reaction to the live Verdi items confirms how much reserve of power Vanzo could call upon when required despite the essential elegance of his tone.
 
The more unusual or notable tracks include the previously mentioned first recording from 1954, Le rêve passé, a song popularised by Irish tenor Joseph Locke, who sang it in virtually all his concerts and in the film “What a Carry On!”. It was written by Georges Krier and Charles Helmer to words by Armand Foucher, and harks back to the military glory days of Napoleon.
 
The other curiosity is Vanzo’s cover of France’s entry for the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest - they came fifth out of 16! Vanzo sounds right at home in its Latin dance rhythm; he was as comfortable in other musical traditions as he was in Grand Opera and could easily have been another Luis Mariano. Indeed, he also wrote songs and composed stage works, including his operetta performed in Lille in 1972 and a “lyrical drama” premiered at Avignon, in 1982.
 
However, the inclusion of this track implies that Malibran must be wrong to tell us that the latest recording here comes from 1962, given that this song was written for the 1963 contest. My feeling, too, is that the tracks featuring the heavier roles come from later in Vanzo's recording career, although I have no evidence of that beyond my ears and the obviously better sound. I suspect that some of these recordings were made in the mid-to-late 1960s, especially as they include arias from operas that Vanzo tells us he did not perform until he was forty - and he was born in 1928.
 
One thing is certain: everything he sings is worth hearing for the intrinsic charm and beauty of his very Gallic lyric tenor.  

Ralph Moore 


Track listing
Georges Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust - Cavatine [5:51]
Mireille - Anges du paradis [3:34]
Roméo et Juliette - Cavatine [4:12]
Air du tombeau [6:50]
André Modeste GRÉTRY (1741-1813)
Richard Coeur de Lion - Si l'univers entier m'oublie [4:36]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Benvenuto Cellini - Sur les monts les plus sauvages [3:54]
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)
Mignon -Adieu Mignon, courage [2:29]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Les pêcheurs de perles - Romance de Nadir [5:02]
La jolie fille de Perth - Sérénade [3:43]
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Le Roi d'Ys - Aubade [3:24]
Leo DELIBES (1836 - 1891)
Lakmé - Ah! Viens dans la forêt profonde [2:32]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Manon - Le rêve de des Grieux [3:11]
Manon - Air de Saint Sulpice [5:00]
Georges KRIER (1872 - 1946) & Charles HELMER (1871 - 1938)
Le rêve passe [3:20] - Alain Vanzo’s first recording, 1954
Interview: 1982 avec Jacques Bertrand
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Werther - Pourquoi me réveiller [6:19]
La Navarraise - O bien aimée [1:25]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Les vêpres siciliennes - O jours de peine [5:16]
Don Carlos -Je l’ai perdue [3:11]
Alain BARRIÈRE (1935 - )
Elle était si jolie [3:10]

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