The Great French Tenor Alain Vanzo
Alain Vanzo (1928- 2002) was a French opera singer who attained international standing in the postwar era. Along with such singers as Henri Legay and the Canadian Léopold Simoneau, he represented a traditional French lyric style during a period when larger Italian and German vocal styles had become popular. Vanzo was born in Monte Carlo, the son of a Mexican father and a French mother. He started singing at a young age in the church choir. At 18, he was singing popular songs with a small band, and began performing at the Théâtre du Châtelet, during the 1951-52 season, as a double for Luis Mariano in the operetta Le Chanteur de Mexico. Later, in 1954, he won an important singing contest in Cannes.
Virtually from the beginning, Vanzo was blessed with a high lyric voice of uncommon beauty and range. One can very easily get the idea of the young man’s singing voice from the following exceptional rendition of the famous tenor aria from I Puritani, a death trap for even great tenors. Here is “A te o Cara”:
Vanzo was then immediately invited to sing at the Opéra-Comique and at the Palais Garnier, quickly establishing himself in the standard French lyric repertory, such as Nadir in Les pêcheurs de perles, Gérald in Lakmé, Faust, Roméo in Roméo et Juliette, Vincent in Mireille, des Grieux in Manon, etc. He also sang the Italian repertory, such as the Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La Traviata, Rodolfo in La Bohème. He won great acclaim at the Palais Garnier in 1960, as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, opposite Joan Sutherland who was making her debut there. This was the beginning of an international career with appearances at many of the major opera houses in Europe, including the Royal Opera House in London, La Monnaie in Brussels, the Liceo in Barcelona, the Vienna State Opera. Vanzo also appeared in North America, on tour with the Paris Opera, singing Faust, and in South America at the Teatro Colón in Les contes d'Hoffmann. He sang at Carnegie Hall in New York, as Gennaro, in the famous 1965 concert version of Lucrezia Borgia, opposite Montserrat Caballé. Here is a wonderful performance of the famous Pearl Fishers duet, with the remarkable baritone Gerard Bacquier:
It is generally only occasionally that one hears this great duet sung by truly great French singers. This can actually make a difference. In comparison to other accomplished singers, native speakers of the language of the opera can have an advantage in eloquence and precision of diction and presentation and the entire musical rendering can be changed as a result. It is hard to imagine two singers better suited for this music than Vanzo and Bacquier.
As the years went by, Vanzo extended his repertory to more dramatic roles, such as Arrigo in the original French version of I Vespri Siciliani, Adorno in Simon Boccanegra, Cavaradossi in Tosca, Robert in Robert le Diable, Raoul in Les Huguenots, Mylio in Le roi d'Ys, and became internationally renowned as one of best exponents of the role of Benvenuto Cellini and Werther.
Vanzo never officially retired, singing well into his 60s, mostly in recital, and appearing frequently on French television. He left relatively few commercial recordings, the most famous being Lakmé, opposite Joan Sutherland, and conducted by Richard Bonynge.
Vanzo also composed, writing songs and two major works, the operetta Pêcheur d'Etoile which premiered at Lille, in 1972, and the lyrical drama Les Chouans, which premiered at Avignon, in 1982.
Alain Vanzo died in Paris on January 27, 2002 of complications following a stroke. He was 73.
Finally, I think it makes sense to take a last look at Vanzo singing one of his signature roles, and that is Werther: “Why awaken me, oh sigh of Springtime.” Although the quality of the video image is poor, the audio is acceptable: