One of the legendary basses of the twentieth century, Vanni-Marcoux was born Giovanni Emilio Diogenio Marcoux in Turin on 12 June 1877. His father was French, his mother Italian. When he later became a naturalized French citizen as Jean Émile Diogène Marcoux, he adopted as his stage name a combination of the abbreviated form of his Italian given name and his family name, the two usually hyphenated, as is often the case in French pseudonyms. (The hyphen is occasionally missing, both in contemporary sources and today, with Vanni treated as a first name and Marcoux as the last, but the more common hyphenated form has been adopted by the Bibliothèque nationale de France as well and all major libraries, in whose catalogues the name will be found under V; it has seemed appropriate therefore to follow this usage here. However, when checking library catalogues and indices, it is always advisable to look up the name under both V and M.)
Some great singers are remembered above all as great voices; others as great singing actors. Vanni-Marcoux definitely belongs to the latter category. Comparisons are inevitable in this respect—and were indeed made—between him and Fyodor Chaliapin (1873–1938). Not only were they nearly exact contemporaries, but they shared many roles: Basilio, Boris, and especially Don Quichotte. Though Vanni-Marcoux may have lacked some of his Russian rival’s haunting vocal refinement—and thankfully, one might add, some of his mannerisms–the Franco-Italian bass comes out of the comparison as a very different singer: a stricter musician to be sure, yet also possessing a wide expressive palette of his own, and in the end, equally memorable.
Having grown up in Piedmont, Vanni-Marcoux studied singing with a bass named Collini in Turin, where he made his first stage appearance as Sparafucile in 1894, at the age of seventeen. After completing a law degree, he left Italy to continue his vocal training in Paris with the Opéra-Comique baritone Frédéric Boyer (1849–1925), sometime head of the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse and the Grand-Théâtre in Bordeaux. Vanni-Marcoux’s official debut took place in 1900 as Wagner in Gounod’s Faust in the Basque city of Bayonne, where he also appeared as Frère Laurent in Roméo et Juliette, Sparafucile, and Colline. The following year, he again sang Colline in the Nice premiere of La bohème, but it was as Marcello that in 1902, he made a return appearance in Turin, and was also featured in two charity concerts together with Francesco Tamagno and Antonio Magini-Coletti. During the 1903-1904 season, he appeared at The Hague, where he sang his first Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust, with Jane Marignan and Charles Fontaine, as well as Phanuel in Massenet’s Hérodiade, the Father in Charpentier’s Louise, and Balthazar in Donizetti’s La favorite. In May 1905 came his Covent Garden debut as Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, with Hermine Bosetti as Rosina and Victor Maurel as Figaro; he appeared there every season until 1912. That same year, he also took part, as Uin-Sci, in the local premiere of Leoni’s L’oracolo in 1905, under André Messager, with Antonio Scotti, Frances Donalda, and Charles Dalmorès. In May 1909 he was the first London Arkel in Pelléas et Mélisande, conducted by Cleofonte Campanini, with Rose Féart and Edmond Warnery in the title roles and Jean Bourbon as Golaud. Debussy, who was present, conveyed his appreciation in a letter to the singer for the “true and profound beauty” he had brought to the role, suggesting simply that, in his acting, he should emphasize Arkel’s essential goodness. When French President Fallières was honored with a Covent Garden gala on his state visit to England in 1908, Vanni-Marcoux partnered Luisa Tetrazzini and John McCormack in act 1 of Les pêcheurs de perles (in Italian) and Nellie Melba and Giovanni Zenatello in the Garden Scene from Faust. Gounod’s Méphistophélès had by then become one of his signature roles. At Covent Garden he was also heard as Sparafucile in 1910, with Tetrazzini, Nikolai Roskovsky, and Mario Sammarco; and as Frère Laurent, Colline, and the Father in Louise, which he sang, among other roles, during the 1911 coronation season.
During the 1907-1908 season, Vanni-Marcoux sang at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, taking part in the revivals of Reyer’s Salammbô, with Lina Pacary in the title role, and Boito’s Mefistofele, with Léon Laffitte as Faust and Vittoria Manzonelli doubling as Margherita and Elena. His other Brussels roles included the King in Thomas’s Hamlet, the Landgrave in Tannhaüser, Hunding in Die Walküre, Fafner in Siegfried, the Old Hebrew in Samson et Dalila, and Scarpia.
Vanni-Marcoux made his comparatively late debut at the Paris Opera on 23 September 1908 in Faust, alongside Mary Garden as Marguerite, Ivan Alchevsky as Faust, and Dinh Gilly as Valentin, with the composer Alfred Bachelet conducting. In January 1909 he premiered the part of Guido Colonna—in which Maurice Renaud had initially been announced—in Henry Février’s Maeterlinck-based Monna Vanna, with Lucienne Bréval in the title role, Lucien Muratore as Prinzivalle, and Francisque Delmas as Marco Colonna.
Another major role Vanni-Marcoux premiered in Paris, and with which he became especially associated, was Massenet’s Don Quichotte. Even though Chaliapin was the original Don at Monte Carlo in February 1910, Massenet, always on the lookout for singing actors, is reported to have had Vanni-Marcoux in mind from the beginning when he wrote the part. (He was also probably less than enthusiastic about Chaliapin’s propensity to take a “creative” approach to his tempi and expressive markings.) After appearing in the sole act 5 at a Paris Opera gala on 10 December 1910, with André Gresse, the original Sancho, Vanni-Marcoux sang the entire work, with immense success, at its full Paris premiere at the Théâtre municipal de la Gaîté-Lyrique on 29 December, with Lucien Fugère as Sancho and, as Dulcinée, Lucy Arbell, sole survivor of the Monte Carlo run. The copy of the score Massenet inscribed to the singer is dated from that evening and reads: “After this beautiful creation I will always consider myself greatly happy and lucky to hear you in the theater.” Vanni-Marcoux, who genuinely admired Massenet’s music, remained Paris’s resident Don Quichotte for nearly four decades: he sang in the Opéra-Comique premiere in 1924 and made his farewell in this role in 1947. A grateful Massenet wrote another part for Vanni-Marcoux, the title-role of the Rabelais-based Panurge, which the Gaîté-Lyrique premiered in 1913, a year after the composer’s death, with Lucy Arbell as Colombe, Panurge’s wife.
Other parts Vanni-Marcoux sang at the Paris Opera before the First World War included, in his debut season, the Landgrave, the Old Hebrew, and Sparafucile; and in 1913, Raffaele—Raphael in the French version—in the local premiere of Wolf-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna, with Léon Campagnola and Andrée Vally, and Athanaël in Thaïs, with Vally as the heroine. In 1911, as part of one of the Isola Brothers’ Gaîté-Lyrique seasons, Vanni-Marcoux made his only appearance in Paris as Bertram in Robert le diable, with Léon Escalaïs in the title-role. He had previously sung the role in Nice in 1901. Henri de Curzon singled out for praise his “original, anxious and continually expressive portrayal.” The work having left the Opéra’s repertory in 1893, this Gaîté-Lyrique performance was its last staging in Paris until 1985.
Returning to his native country, Vanni-Marcoux made his first Scala appearance as the Old Hebrew in Samson et Dalila in 1910. He also appeared before the war at Parma as Basilio and as Sulpice in La figlia del regimento. Years later he recalled his qualms before facing the notoriously pitiless Parma audience and his relief at the warm welcome he received there.
Vanni-Marcoux made his American debut in Boston, where he sang his first Golaud in January 1912 with the Boston Opera Company. Debussy’s disciple André Caplet conducted this important production and the rest of the cast included Georgette Leblanc as Mélisande and Jean Riddez as Pelléas. Reviewing the performance for the Boston Herald, Philip Hale wrote: “It was one of the most striking interpretations that I have seen on stage for the last thirty years.” In Boston, Vanni-Marcoux also sang Gounod’s Méphistophélès, Basilio (with Tetrazzini), and Scarpia. His Tosca this time was Lucille Marcel—Mrs Felix Weingartner—while Zenatello sang Cavaradossi. Returning to open the 1912-1913 season, Vanni-Marcoux was featured in the four bass roles in Les contes d’Hoffmann and repeated his Méphistophélès and Scarpia, the latter with Garden. The Garden-Marcoux partnership apparently resulted in such erotically charged acting in act 2 that the company’s manager, Henry Russell, received instruction from the mayor’s office to “tone down” the production. Other Boston appearances that season included Athanaël, also with Garden, and the Father in Louise, with Edmond Clément and Louise Edvina. As Raffaele, Vanni-Marcoux took part in the local premiere of Wolff-Ferrari’s I gioielli della Madonna, with Edvina and Zenatello, and treated the Bostonians to his first Don Giovanni, with Emmy Destinn as Anna, John McCormack as Ottavio, Adamo Didur as Leporello, and José Mardones as the Commendatore. In Quaintance Eaton’s words, “the handsome rake, in handsome costume, was graceful, light-footed, warm in wooing, not too ironical in his treatment of the scorned Elvira, humorous with his toady Leporello, yet always his superior and master, his tones not always bearing the sensuous beauty of the music, but gaining in suppleness and suggestion of natural and spontaneous speech in music.”
Vanni-Marcoux gave the American premiere of Massenet’s Don Quichotte in Philadelphia in November 1913, with Garden as Dulcinée and Dufranne as Sancho, repeating the role a few days later, with the same cast, in Chicago, where he had opened the season as Scarpia, with Garden as Tosca. Monna Vanna received its American premiere in Boston in December 1913, with Garden and Muratore, and was repeated in Chicago in January 1914. Vanni-Marcoux’s Guido was deemed by the Philadelphia North America “still more remarkable” than his Don Quichotte. New Yorkers were able to hear him in these two roles in early 1914 when the Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company gave the local premieres of Don Quichotte, on 6 February, and Monna Vanna on 17 February, both given at the Metropolitan Opera House. In both works Vanni-Marcoux was partnered by Mary Garden, while in Monna Vanna Prinzivalle was sung by Lucien Muratore, making his local debut. These are the only documented appearances of Vanni-Marcoux at the Met, though not with the Met.
In the spring of 1914, Vanni-Marcoux was on the roster of the Boston Opera Company on its Paris visit, at the newly built Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. As Archibaldo, a part he had first essayed in Boston earlier that year, he took part in the local premiere of Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re, with Louise Edvina as Flora. Also with the Bostonian company, he gave the Paris premiere of Wolff-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna, with Maggie Teyte as the heroine, and sang Iago—a part for which he had been coached by Victor Maurel, its 1887 creator—with Eduardo Ferrari-Fontana as Otello and Nellie Melba as Desdemona; he repeated the part at the Opéra the same year, with the same Otello and the young Rosa Raisa as Desdemona. It was also in the spring of 1914 that he made his belated Opéra-Comique debut, as Golaud, with Marguerite Carré as Mélisande, Alfred Maguenat as Pelléas, and Félix Vieuille as Arkel, with François Ruhlmann conducting. Moved by Vanni-Marcoux’s performance, Debussy wrote to the singer that “never had the suffering of poor Golaud found such accents”—a letter Vanni-Marcoux treasured for the remainder of his life to the point of considering it, as he once told an interviewer, his most precious possession.
The war marked an interruption in Vanni-Marcoux’s career. A mere four weeks before it started, he had married Madeleine Morlay, formerly a dancer with the Théâtre Antoine. He enlisted, serving—like Ravel and Roussel—in the automobile division. In 1917, the Chicago Opera, using diplomatic channels, tried to obtain his release for six months so that he could appear as Don Quichotte, Golaud, and Guido, but the request was denied despite support from the French embassy in Washington.
Demobilized in January 1919, Vanni-Marcoux made his debut that year at the Teatro Colón on the occasion of the local premiere of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Also in Buenos Aires he sang Monna Vanna, Faust, Tosca (opposite Gigli), and Escamillo, with Laure Bergé as Carmen and Muratore as Don José. Returning to Paris in the fall of 1919, he appeared in a run of Barbieres at the Vaudeville, with Lydia Lipkowska alternating with Graziella Pareto as Rosina and Léon Ponzio as Figaro, and in the same theater sang Boito’s Mefistofele, a work Parisians had had the opportunity to see in its entirety only twice, with Chaliapin, in 1912. Vanni-Marcoux’s “extreme nakedness” in the Walpurgis Scene was duly commented upon.
The year 1920 began in Monte Carlo with performances of Don Quichotte with Lucy Arbell, Don Giovanni with Lucrezia Bori and Marcel Journet, and L’amore di tre re with Bori and Gigli, as well as the world premiere of Février’s La damnation de Blanchefleur, with Marguerite Carré. At the Opéra-Comique, he sang his first Louise Father and his first Escamillo with the company and premiered the title role in Ernest Moret’s Lorenzaccio. The composer, a student of Massenet, had written his own libretto, closely following Musset’s prose drama. Though Moret’s work did not maintain itself in the repertory, Vanni-Marcoux’s performance won unanimous critical praise. Another Opéra-Comique premiere in which he took part in 1921 was Camille Erlanger’s Forfaiture, an operatic adaptation of Cecil B. de Mille’s film The Cheat. This intriguing work, in which Vanni-Marcoux was the Japanese villain played on screen by Sessue Hayakawa, did poorly despite a cast that included Marguerite Carré, Charles Friant, and Charles Panzéra; it disappeared after three performances. Later in the same year, Vanni-Marcoux headed a brilliantly cast Opéra-Comique Don Giovanni, with Yvonne Gall as Anna, Aline Vallandri as Elvira, Marguerite Carré as Zerlina, and Louis Cazette as Ottavio.
In March 1922, Vanni-Marcoux measured himself once again against the souvenir of Chaliapin, when he starred as Boris Godunov in the first French-language production of the work at the Opéra, where the Russian bass had first sung it in Russian in 1908. Serge Koussevitzky conducted and the cast also included John O’Sullivan as Dimitri, Albert Huberty as Pimen, André Gresse as Varlaam, and, as Marina, Germaine Lubin, whom Vanni-Marcoux had just partnered in a revival of Monna Vanna. The performances were received to great acclaim and Boris became one of the principle roles of Vanni-Marcoux’s later career. Within weeks, he appeared in it at La Scala, in Italian, under Toscanini, with Aureliano Pertile as Dimitri, Mansueto Gaudio as Pimen, and Elvira Casazza as Marina. (It may be worth noting that the reviewer of Il corriere della sera referred to him as “un artista italiano.”) At the Opéra he repeated the part in 1923, 1924, and 1928.
A less successful assumption, despite the role’s histrionic value, was Ramon in a revival of Raoul Laparra’s La habanera at the Opéra-Comique in October 1922, with Friant as Pedro. Critics generally found the part too high for Vanni-Marcoux’s voice. Glowing reviews, however, greeted his first Paris Gianni Schicchi the following month, including Puccini’s own opinion—reported in the press—that it was the “most perfect” he had heard. The composer inscribed the score to the singer on 6 November with these words: “To the eminent and highly intelligent artist, a great protagonist, in gratitude and friendship.” (It is preserved in the Harvard Theatre Collection as part of the incomparable John Milton and Ruth Neils Ward Collection of operatic scores).
In 1923, still at the Opéra-Comique, Vanni-Marcoux sang the title-role in the premiere of Polyphème by Roussel’s disciple and fellow naval officer Jean Cras. Vanni-Marcoux’s annotated score of the work is also in the Ward Collection at Harvard. Cras subsequently wrote for Vanni-Marcoux a song cycle, Les fontaines, on texts by L. Jacques based on eleventh-century Persian poetry. The singer premiered it in 1924 at the Salle Gaveau, where he regularly appeared in recital in the following years, in programs that usually combined arie antiche and French, German, and Russian songs (he also gave entire Schubert programs in 1928 and 1929).
Vanni-Marcoux returned to Monte Carlo in 1923 to appear in the premiere of Raoul Gunsbourg’s Lysistrata and in 1924 sang Gunsbourg’s Le vieil aigle at Nice; the cast also included Vally and Jean Marny. For the Opéra-Comique premiere of Don Quichotte he was reunited with his 1910 partners Arbell and Fugère. He remained the Salle Favart’s resident Don Quichotte until the mid-1930s. At the Opéra, still in 1924, he sang his first Méphisto in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, alongside Paul Franz and Ninon Vallin in one of her rare appearances in the house, and premiered the title-role in Max d’Ollone’s L’arlequin, on a libretto by the playwright Jean Sarment; the cast also included Marcelle Denya, Ketty Lapeyrette, and Albert Huberty. Vanni-Marcoux’s role, written especially for him, required him to dance as well as sing and act. He repeated it in Antwerp and The Hague the following year. The leading Antwerp paper lauded his “splendid acting, sombre and concentrated,” adding: “His mimicry, posture, gestures, little dance steps and pirouettes, almost everything should be cited and praised. Here is one of the most complete, if not the most, of lyric tragedians of our time.” Though Vanni-Marcoux expressed hopes to sing Arlequin again, perhaps in a pared-down version, the work reached only 14 performances at the Opéra.
Vanni-Marcoux demonstrated his versatility once more by appearing as Baron Ochs in Monte Carlo’s first Rosenkavalier in March 1926, with Gabrielle Ritter-Ciampi as the Marschallin and Germaine Lubin as Octavian. Although he was not invited to sing Ochs when the Opéra first staged Rosenkavalier in February 1927, with Lubin as Octavian, he repeated the part in Monaco two seasons later, with Vina Bovy as the Marschallin, and again in 1929, with Marisa Ferrer as Octavian. Still in 1926, he made his Paris music-hall debut in a French-language Segreto di Susanna at the Empire, with Renée Destanges, with whom he sang highlights from Don Giovanni at the London Albert Hall in the same year. In the summer he left for Brazil, where he was heard in Thaïs, Monna Vanna, and Louise, with Yvonne Gall in each work, both in Rio and in São Paulo. In the same cities he gave the Brazilian premiere of Don Quichotte, with Giuseppina Zinetti and Armand Crabbé, also singing Tosca with Gall in São Paulo. Later in 1926 he finally returned to Chicago, where he clearly became a favorite, singing in every season until 1932. In the first he appeared as Don Giovanni with a cast that included Rosa Raisa as Anna, Edith Mason as Zerlina, Tito Schipa as Ottavio, Virgilio Lazzari as Leporello, and Alexander Kipnis as the Commendatore. In 1927 Chicago heard him in Monna Vanna, Tosca, Boris, Faust, and the Father in Louise, with Garden and Ansseau. He repeated the roles in the following season, adding his Golaud to Garden’s Mélisande (with Kipnis as Arkel) and the four villains in Les contes d’Hoffmann, with René Maison as Hoffmann. In 1930 he gave the local premiere of Lorenzaccio with Charles Hackett and Thelma Votipka, the work’s only staging outside France, and sang Iago to Claudia Muzio’s Desdemona and Charles Marshall’s Otello. In his final Chicago season, he sang Scarpia to Muzio’s Tosca and Jan Kiepura’s Cavaradossi; Boris; Lothario in Mignon; and Chim Fen in the first Chicago hearing of L’oracolo.
After starring in the 1929 Monte Carlo premiere of Février’s La femme nue, based on the Henry Bataille play itself inspired by Debussy’s 1905 break with his wife Lilly, Vanni-Marcoux reprised the work at the Opéra-Comique, where it enjoyed modest success until 1935; his annotated copy of the score is also in the Ward Collection. Returning to Boston in 1929, he sang Boris and the Hoffmann villains. In Paris he appeared in Pierre-Octave Ferroud’s one-act opéra-bouffe, Chirurgie, for which he was reported to be paid a handsome 25,000 francs for each of the four performances; a sold-out night at the Opéra then brought in about 75,000. Among the projects he announced at the time was a revival of Erlanger’s Le juif polonais at the Opéra-Comique, performing the role of Mathis, which had been premiered by Victor Maurel, and Reynaldo Hahn’s Le marchand de Venise; however, when the work was finally staged at the Opéra in 1935, it was André Pernet who sang Shylock.
Vanni-Marcoux made many French provincial appearances in the early and mid-1930s: Toulouse, where he sang Don Quichotte in 1933; Lyons, where he sang Boris in 1934; Nice, where he premiered Gianni Schicchi in 1935; and Bordeaux, Marseilles, and Vichy, where he was a regular guest. In 1935 he starred in Henri Goublier’s operetta La nuit est belle at the Théâtre Antoine in Paris, and in 1936 he reprised his Don Quichotte at the Opéra-Comique, with the outstanding Louis Musy as Sancho. In 1937 he created the part of Séraphin Flambeau in Honegger and Ibert’s L’aiglon, with Fanny Heldy in the trouser role of the Duke of Reichstadt and Arthur Endrèze as Metternich. Based on Rostand’s play about the death of Napoleon’s son, the work was staged first at Monte Carlo and shortly afterwards at the Opéra. There in May 1937, Vanni-Marcoux appeared in Monna Vanna for the last time, and that same month he made his Covent Garden farewell as Golaud. He continued to appear at the Opéra-Comique, where he sang as Scarpia and the Father in Louise in May 1938. His final appearance at the Opéra took place the following month as Séraphin Flambeau. In the same year, he was appointed professor of lyrical declamation at the Conservatoire, where he taught until 1943.
Save for occasional appearances in the provinces, such as the 1941 Bordeaux premiere of L’aiglon, Vanni-Marcoux spent the war years in Paris, where he had lived, from the 1920s onwards, in a splendid eighteenth-century Left Bank apartment located at no. 15, rue du Cherche-Midi, in the Saint-Sulpice area, where his wife had gathered a fine collection of Japanese pottery, which was sold at auction in 1942. Despite, or perhaps because of, his distinguished First World War record, the singer’s sympathies—like those of the vast majority of his compatriots until quite late into the Occupation—appear to have been squarely with Marshal Pétain’s regime. In fact he was a regular guest on the collaborationist Radio-Paris. In early July 1944, he even lobbied the Paris Opera and Vichy government, by then totally in the hands of the pro-Nazi camp, to be appointed artistic director of the Opéra. As his dossier d’artiste at the Paris Opera library shows, he got the backing of Abel Bonnard, Minister of Education, who was later sentenced to death in absentia for high treason. That he was not politically left-leaning is further evidenced by his acceptance of the rank of Commander of the Italian Crown from Mussolini’s hands in 1935. This little-known episode not withstanding—it was, in any event, not publicized—Vanni-Marcoux did not run into any difficulties at the Liberation. He made his farewell to the stage on 22 October 1947, at the age of 70, when Don Quichotte was staged at the Opéra-Comique to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Cervantes’s birth. Musy and his wife Renée Gilly partnered him as Sancho and Dulcinée. The following year, Vanni-Marcoux was appointed director of the Grand-Théâtre in Bordeaux, a position he kept until 1951, presiding over such interesting premieres as Henri Busser’s realization of Bizet’s unfinished Ivan IV, while staging Monna Vanna and Pelléas. He also remained active as a stage director. He directed a new Boris at the Opéra in 1949 and Les pêcheurs de perles at the Opéra-Comique in 1957. The latter production was regularly revived at the Salle Favart until 1971. (The Paris Opera preserves 30-odd “mises en scène” in Vanni-Marcoux’s hand, from Aida to Zampa, including such rarities as Massenet’s Grisélidis and Roma, Bruneau’s Le rêve, and Jan Blockx’s La fiancée de la mer; it is not clear, however, whether the stagings were entirely his or, as is evident in some cases, adaptations of previous ones.) The great Franco-Italian singer died in Paris on 22 October 1962.
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Remarkably, Vanni-Marcoux does not appear to have been considered by most of his contemporaries as a naturally gifted singer. When he made his belated debut in Toulouse, local reviewers pointed out, as if self-evident, that the voice was not of the kind that bowls over native Toulousains. Similarly, a critic pointed out in 1925 in Comœdia that the voice was “of a rather ungainly quality.” Reviewing his admittedly not highly successful Habanera in 1922, the same journal referred dismissively to his “limited abilities,” adding: “His voice is not a baritone—nor a bass—no matter what he does.” In the same year, Lyrica went so far as to describe his voice as being “of mediocre quality.” One should perhaps add that comparable criticism has always been leveled at some of the greatest singing actors, Tito Gobbi for one. Well aware of his vocal limitations, Vanni-Marcoux occasionally referred to himself, not without a certain coquetry, as “a singer without a voice.” Significantly, he does not figure—be it under M or V—in Rodolfo Celletti’s classic encyclopedia Le grande voci.
Indeed it is primarily as an actor that Vanni-Marcoux was customarily praised. That he was endowed with uncommon acting abilities is evidenced by the fact that his career encompassed other media: in 1922 he made his film debut in the role of Faust in Marcel Lherbier’s Don Juan et Faust, after the play by Christian Dietrich Grabbe. In 1924 he appeared in another silent film, Raymond Bernard’s Le miracle des loups, based on the novel by Henri Dupuy-Mazuel, set in the Middle Ages. In 1934 he starred, in a spoken role this time, in Marc Allégret’s Sans famille, based on Hector Malot’s popular 1880 melodramatic novel. Like Pabst’s Don Quichotte with Chaliapin, these visual documents provide an invaluable testimony to Vanni-Marcoux’s histrionic genius—as do to an unusual degree photographs of him in his signature roles. The genre of opéra-comique, where spoken dialogues alternate with sung passages, seems to have been natural to him. He was even approached to do Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac on stage. No wonder he took his incursion into the world of music-hall so well in his stride. His handsome, expressive physique was obviously an asset which he knew how to make the best of.
Yet such characterizations as Vanni-Marcoux as a splendid actor—“the John Barrymore of the lyric stage,” according to a Chicago newspaper—endowed, at best, with a serviceable voice is belied by the many recordings he has fortunately left us. It is also contradicted by some contemporary accounts. While Edmond Stoullig, reviewing the initial run of Monna Vanna in 1909, could refer to Vanni-Marcoux’s “bad basse chantante voice,” Comœdia described it more kindly in 1910, à propos his Don Quichotte, as “dramatic and energetic,” noting that it could be “caressing and full of tenderness.” “Not only does his voice possess half-shades, which amazed by the rarity of their perfection from a bass, but there is also something inexpressible. It is not just the tremendous force of the interpretation; it adds to the vocal charm.” A fair assessment is provided by Georges Pioch, reviewing the singer’s Opéra debut for Le Populaire in 1908: “Vanni Marcoux does not have what may be called a beautiful voice, but he has such a good natural voice and such good diction that give him power and sometimes a rare charm.” Not a huge voice, by all accounts, it was an admirably projected one. Its range is usually described as going from A at the bottom of the staff to G above, though he must have been able to hit Ochs’s E-flat (if presumably not attempting the low C at his act 1 exit). In fact he began his career as a real bass—singing deep roles such as Sparafucile, Arkel, and the Landgrave. His Bertram, as we have seen, was well received. Early in his career, then confined to smallish provincial houses, he even sang such low-lying parts as Marcel in Les Huguenots and Brogni in La Juive. But his true Fach seems to have been that of a typical bass-baritone, ideally suited to parts like Boris or—sadly, since he never sang the role, despite his classic version of “Elle ne m’aime pas”—Philip II in Don Carlos. Boris he picked as one of his three favorite roles, the other two being Don Giovanni and Guido in Monna Vanna. While one does not spontaneously associate him with Mozart’s hero, he must have cut a dashing figure in the part and used mellifluous, malevolent tones to great effect. Guido Colonna, on the other hand, was a part tailor-made for him, and the role of the jealous Renaissance Pisan commander forced to deliver his wife to the enemy Florentine captain who loves her has remained indissolubly attached to his name.
While he clearly had his favorite roles, Vanni-Marcoux’s repertory was large—though not as large as has sometimes been suggested. To the bass and baritone parts already mentioned, one has to add his concert repertory, which extended to the music-hall and art songs. Fortunately, this range and diversity are well represented in his recorded legacy.
One may, of course, regret that recording companies showed no interest in Vanni-Marcoux before the war, thus depriving us of the opportunity to assess his voice in its prime. However, his vocal longevity was remarkable and even though he recorded nothing before his late forties, the results belie the fact that he was entering the latter stage of his career. All his recordings were made in Paris, most of them for the Gramophone Company (a.k.a. “His Master’s Voice,” subsequently absorbed into EMI). His association with them began in September 1924 when he recorded four excerpts from Boris Godunov. He recorded for HMV regularly until 1937. The artistic director was an Italian musician, Piero Coppola, born in Milan in 1888, who settled in Paris in 1922 and joined HMV the following year. An excellent pianist as well as a conductor and composer, he is heard as Vanni-Marcoux’s accompanist in a great number of his recordings. (At the outbreak of the Second World War, Coppola moved to Lausanne, where he died in 1971; he has left an interesting memoir, Dix-sept ans de musique à Paris, 1922–1939, first published in 1943.)
Vanni-Marcoux’s voice took to the microphone well. As Desmond Shawe-Taylor, among others, has noted, one would never guess from the timbre that Vanni-Marcoux was half-Italian. His voice is characteristically French, with a distinctive head resonance, indeed slightly nasal at times, and rather reminiscent of someone like Georges Thill. The other immediately apparent feature of Vanni-Marcoux’s art is his expressive, yet immaculate and always clear delivery of the text. In this respect he was, indeed, above all a singing actor. On his appointment as professor of lyric declamation at the Conservatoire in 1938, he told a journalist that “the articulation is the apex of the interpretation of a text,” adding: “It is by their articulation that singers must capture the audience’s interest, thus contributing to keeping opera alive. Bel canto is not enough.”
Vanni-Marcoux’s recordings fall into four categories: operatic arias; classical songs; French traditional songs; and the lighter repertory, which includes jazz, popular songs, film songs, and operetta.
Although Vanni-Marcoux recorded only a fraction of his vast repertory, we are fortunate in being able to hear him in some of his finest roles, beginning with Boris and Don Quichotte. As evidenced from his 1924 recording of the Czar’s first act 2 soliloquy, “Dostig ya visshey vlasti,” his Boris, in both the 1924 and the 1927 versions, between which there is little to choose—save for the better orchestral sound in the electric recording—is characterized by its dignity and sobriety. It is one of the most “sung” of early recorded Borises, with minimal resort to sprechgesang. His spoken utterances in the Clock Scene, which he recorded only once in 1927, and of which two different takes are preserved, are all the more spine-chilling for the contrast. Similarly, the death scene, which he recorded in 1924 and 1927 (stopping, in both cases, just before the entrance of the chorus) is interiorized rather than histrionic. By the same token, his Varlaam—a part he never sang on stage—may be found too restrained and lacking in truculence. Best of all may be the 1934 Coronation monologue, in which the Czar’s anguish is conveyed in firm tones, the words crisply enunciated, without a hint of bombast.
Massenet, who admired cabaret singers like Yvette Guilbert, was famously looking for singers capable above all of “saying” the lines. It is no wonder that he found in Vanni-Marcoux one of his ideal interpreters. Nothing will console us from the lack of a complete recording of Don Quichotte with him—with Louis Musy and Ketty Lapeyrette, an ideal cast could have been assembled in the early 1930s—but at least we have substantial highlights. Recorded both in 1924 and in 1927, the act 1 serenade (“Quand apparaissent les étoiles”) links the two verses by skipping to the end of the act after the first (without the voice of Dulcinée at the end). In 1927, Vanni-Marcoux added the two arias from act 3 (the scene with the Bandits). The death scene he recorded three times, the first two, in 1924 and 1927, on his own, the third time, in 1934, with Michel Cozette and Odette Ricquier lending competent support as Sancho and Dulcinée. As in Boris, Vanni-Marcoux’s Don Quichotte is remarkable less in terms of vocal opulence than for its nobility—a Van Dam rather than a Ghiaurov.
Vanni-Marcoux’s Golaud, by all reports—including the composer’s—one of his greatest assumptions, is preserved in two extracts: a couple of passages, tied together, from act 2, scene 2 (when Golaud tells Mélisande how he got thrown off his horse, not realizing this happened at the very moment she dropped her wedding ring in the fountain while playing with Pelléas) and the great outburst in act 4, scene 2, when he threatens his wife and pulls her by the hair. The character’s quick changes of mood, his mounting anger, are conveyed subtly and sympathetically as well as in firm, beautiful tones.
From Février’s Monna Vanna, in which he sang the Golaud-like figure of Guido Colonna, Vanni-Marcoux recorded a passage from act 1, scene 3. It occurs when Guido, interrogating his wife, reacts to her reporting that the enemy captain who loves her and has demanded her as a ransom for the besieged city was reported to her as being an “old man.” Marked “Allegro appassionnato” and “doloroso” in the score, Guido’s plea is rendered both powerfully and sympathetically. Though in 1909 Vanni-Marcoux still sang genuine bass roles such as Sparafucile and the Old Hebrew, the tessitura, which goes from middle E to high E-flat, is resolutely in the baritone range.
Another relatively unfamiliar role created by Vanni-Marcoux is the title-role in Massenet’s Panurge, posthumously premiered in 1913. Indeed, the hero’s act 1 song about the beauty of the Touraine region is the only “official” recorded extract from the work, which, despite a revival at Saint-Étienne in 1994, has never entered the repertory, perhaps because one does not spontaneously associate the composer of Manon and Werther with comedy or Rabelais. On the other hand, there is no evidence that Vanni-Marcoux appeared in Massenet’s Cléopâtre. At the February 1914 Monte-Carlo premiere, Antony was Alfred Maguenat (partnering Maria Kuznetsova); nor did Vanni-Marcoux take part in the Paris premiere at the Théâtre-Lyrique du Vaudeville, in November 1919, when Maurice Renaud sang Antony to Mary Garden’s Cleopatra. Of the brooding act 2 monologue, set in Rome when Antony hears that Cleopatra has acquired a new lover in his absence, there exists another celebrated recording by Marcel Journet. Vanni-Marcoux beautifully conveys the character’s mounting passion (among Massenet’s expressive directions are “avec désespérance,” “Il est fou, haletant,” “désespéré”, “dans un râle,” “avec une profonde émotion”), effortlessly reaching F on the words “et dans mon cœur,” while respecting the composer’s p and pp markings.
Though he did not appear in Le jongleur de Notre-Dame in Paris, Vanni-Marcoux may have sung Boniface in the provinces, where Massenet’s medieval mystère was deservedly popular. His “Légende de la sauge” may not be a match for Couzinou’s in terms of sheer emotional power, but it certainly rises to a comparable level of excellence in terms of eloquence and fine enunciation.
Pedro in Laparra’s La habanera is another of Vanni-Marcoux’s baritone roles, initially sung by Séveilhac at the 1908 Opéra-Comique premiere. The Basque composer also wrote the libretto of this somber “drame lyrique,” from which Vanni-Marcoux has left an impressive recording of Ramón’s opening monologue in act 1, scene 2. The hero laments the impending marriage of his brother Pedro with Pilar, whom Ramón loves, and whose joyous voice interrupts him (later in the same act, Ramón, mad with jealousy, kills his brother, whose specter comes to haunt him in the form of the obsessive habanera rhythm).
The regrettable lack of any recorded souvenir of Vanni-Marcoux’s Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust is partly compensated by the two highlights from Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, both, alas, without chorus. The Flea Song, on the other hand, beginning with Méphisto’s recitative (“Vrais Dieux, messieurs...”) offers us a glimpse of his unexaggerated sense of irony, with, in the song proper, an arresting use of expressive parlando on the words “cruelle politique.”
Don Giovanni was a favorite role of Vanni-Marcoux and one is glad he chose to record Deh, vieni in Italian, even though the tone remains unmistakably Gallic. An even more impressive document is Leporello’s Catalogue aria, delivered with splendid verve. The aria from La bohème reminds us that Colline was one of Vanni-Marcoux’s early roles—the Gallic tone perfectly appropriate here, Colline being something of a Parisian intellectual. He was clearly a highly sympathetic exponent of the Father in Louise, judging by his fine account of the Berceuse. As for the two extracts of Lothario, a part he sang before the First World War and in Chicago much later, it is difficult to imagine a more heartfelt, delicately shaped performance.
Vanni-Marcoux did appear in Thomas’s Hamlet early in his career, but as the King, not as the hero, a part he may have found too high-lying for his bass-baritone. One is all the more grateful for the opportunity to have his eloquent rendering of “Être ou ne pas être.” Philip II, on the other hand, is a part for which he would have been ideally suited, if Don Carlos had not been so inexplicably neglected during the first half of the twentieth century, especially in France—let alone in French! If a case needs to be made for singing the work in the language Verdi set it to music—in both the five-act and four-act versions—Vanni-Marcoux’s introspective performance makes it more powerfully than anyone.
For those hitherto unfamiliar with his complete recorded legacy, Vanni-Marcoux’s versatility in the Lieder and mélodie repertory may come as a surprise. He was, in fact, active as a recitalist, beginning in the 1920s, and some of the qualities we have noted above, such as the clarity of his diction and his eschewing vocal histrionics, qualified him to become a first-rate concert singer. The French repertory is represented with two songs from Cras’s cycle Fontaines, which Vanni-Marcoux premiered in 1924. They are much in the manner of Duparc, Cras’s mentor, whose Le manoir de Rosemonde receives a powerful performance. Hahn is represented with two songs, the 1891 Offrande, on the Verlaine text more famously set by Debussy, and the Charles d’Orléans-based Je me mets en votre mercy—an altogether delightful performance. The three versions of Séverac’s berceuse Ma poupée chérie attest to the popularity of the piece—which is indeed to this day the most popular piece penned by the Languedocien composer. A single Fauré, Le secret (on a poem by Armand Silvestre) and two Gounods (Envoi de fleurs, on a text by Émile Augier—a song Gounod dedicated to Ambroise Thomas—and Prière, on a poem by Sully-Prudhomme) are handled with the expected elegance and delicacy. The classical German repertory is present with four Schuberts (Die Forelle, Lachen und Weinen, Der Lindenbaum from Winterreise, and Des Müllers Blumen from Die Schöne Müllerin) and one Schumann (Der Nussbaum). In all of them Vanni-Marcoux’s sensitive handling of the text is so persuasive that one could easily forget that they are done in translation (the same cannot be said about most performances of Schubert or Schumann in French by his contemporaries.) Arie antiche, with which he often began his recitals, are represented by a stylish Tu lo sai—then routinely attributed to Alessandro Scarlatti, now credited to Giuseppe Torelli—and an arrangement of an old Piedmontese song by Vanni-Marcoux’s fellow Turninese Leone Sinigaglia (1868–1944). There are also two French equivalents: the perennially popular Minuet by André-Joseph Exaudet (1710?–1762), which has survived fittings to a great variety of texts; and Martini’s Plaisir d’amour, also present in three beautiful renderings, the third, of 1933, distinctly slower than in 1925 or 1928. From the Russian repertory, which Vanni-Marcoux also regularly featured in his concerts, come Glazunov’s Op. 27, No 2 [Vostochnyi romans] (on a text by Pushkin), which he recorded twice, and Borodin’s Spyashchaya knyazhna.
Closer to the salon repertory are Hermann Bemberg’s Chant hindou and the seven songs by Paolo Tosti. Next to his famous Voi dormite, Segreto, and L’ultima canzone, sung in the original Italian, we hear four of his French-language songs, now so rarely performed: Ninon (on words by Musset), Je pleure, Le mal d’aimer, and Chanson de l’adieu. An even greater rarity is Il volontario by Renato Brogi (1873–1924), whose output included several operas and operettas. Closer to the contemporary repertory are Coppola’s Soupir—not to be confused with the Duparc song of the same title—and À quoi bon vous aimer, as well as the four Chants des métiers by Victor Larbey (18??–1949), which celebrate four traditional or modern professions—wheelwrights, typists, carpenters, and shop-assistants. The little-known Larbey seems to have been primarily a song composer. “La voix des nôtres,” the heading under which the four songs were issued, was evidently a record label specializing in a repertory with a social content.
French regional and traditional songs are another neglected area. Seven of them are arrangements of songs from the French provinces by the Alsatian composer and music antiquarian Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin (1821–1910), who for more than three decades served as the Paris Conservatoire librarian—his opera with piano La laitière de Trianon was recently recorded by Opera Rara. The Cantatille by the otherwise unknown Lancel, the Breton song arranged by José André, and the two seventeenth- and eighteenth- century French songs belong to the same category. The last, Le beau séjour (“Viens dans ce bocage, belle Aminte...”) elicits from Vanni-Marcoux a particularly winning, nimble performance. As for the perennially popular À la pêche des moules, it exemplifies the singer’s use of expressive portamenti; this péché mignon is, of course, in keeping with the style of the period.
As his biography shows, Vanni-Marcoux did not disdain more popular genres and they are well represented in his discography. One of his last pre-World War II recordings, on 30 September 1935, was two arias from Henri Goublier’s musical comedy La nuit est belle, which he had premiered at the Théâtre Antoine, in Paris, on 24 September. Though he did not take part in the premiere of Robert Macaire by Marc Berthomieu (1906–1991) at Le Havre in 1934, he recorded the aria “À la belle étoile” ten days before the 18 November premiere, no doubt as a friendly gesture towards the young composer. The other Berthomieu operetta featured on the same 1934 disc, La belle traversée, was not staged until April 1937 at the Alhambra Theater.
The two songs from Sans famille, written by the distinguished operetta composer Maurice Yvain (1891–1965) are reminders of Vanni-Marcoux’s film career. Another major name in post-1918 operetta, the Geneva-born Henri Christiné (1867–1941) began his career as a songwriter, as in Reviens, to lyrics by Harry Fragson (pseudonym of Léon-Philippe Pot, 1869–1913).
The earliest popular song recorded by Vanni-Marcoux is Soldat de Marsala by Gustave Nadaud (1820–1893). Inspired by Garibaldi’s expedition, it was banned until the Third Republic. Also dating from the end of the Second Empire, but still familiar today, Le temps des cerises, lyrics by Jean-Baptiste Clément (1836–1903), music by the tenor Antoine Renard (1825–1872), became indissolubly linked, to Clément’s approval, with the memory of the Paris Commune. The author of the Chanson des heures, Xavier Privas, another popular songwriter, was the pseudonym of the Lyons-born Antoine-Paul Taravel (1863–1927). A real rarity by comparison, and no less eloquently rendered by Vanni-Marcoux, is Xavier Leroux’s La lettre de Jean-Pierre, its text by Jean Richepin, with its pacifist (or antimilitaristic) overtones, belonging to the early, Bohemian period of its author.
No less a curiosity are the two songs by Alden Carpenter (1876–1951). Both on texts by Langston Hughes (from his collection The Weary Blues), they were published in 1927 as part of Carpenter’s Four Negro Songs, Op. 27, and were therefore quite new when Vanni-Marcoux recorded them in June 1928. The performance is lively, but the singer’s English, though competent, is not up to the level of his French and Italian. His other incursions into the world of music hall are the two songs in which he is accompanied by the Catalan musician Federico Longás Torres (1893–1968), and the two Spanish songs by Curt Lewinnek and Lola Castagnaro he recorded under Marcel Cariven.
Paul Delmet (1862–1904), who gets the lion’s share in Vanni-Marcoux’s discography, was a beloved popular composer and chanteur of the Belle Époque period. He was particularly associated with Rodolphe Solis’s famous Montmartre cabaret Le Chat Noir (named by reference to a tale by Edgar Allan Poe), where he made his debut at the age of 24. Some of the texts Delmet set were his own, a few by established writers such as Armand Silvestre (Mélancolie) or Maurice Vaucaire (Petit chagrin, Les petits pavés—a song which earned Debussy’s praise), and others still by popular lyricists, especially Maurice Boukay (1866–1931), in real life a prominent politician, Charles-Maurice Couÿba, who served as minister in several Third Republic governments. Delmet’s songs remained popular throughout the twentieth century and some—L’étoile d’amour for one—still are. It is, in any event, difficult to imagine a more stylish rendering than the one they get from Vanni-Marcoux. Though not by Delmet, Désiré Dihau’s Quand les lilas refleuriront was written as an homage to him and was featured in Envoi de fleurs, the film about Delmet’s life released in 1950 with Tino Rossi playing the composer-singer.
In 1955, the 78 year old Vanni-Marcoux returned to the recording studio to produce an entire LP album devoted to Delmet. His accompanist, this time, was the distinguished Russian-born pianist and coach Irène Aïtoff, who died in 2006 at the age of 102. Though the voice has obviously lost its bloom and the singer has to resort to a few “tricks” to conceal his age, the unparalleled style and gusto he brings to these charming trifles are enough to keep the name of Delmet immortal.
The Complete Vanni-Marcoux
Vanni-Marcoux’s (1877 – 1962) career in opera roughly-spanned the first half of the last century. Marcoux made his debut as Wagner in Gounod's Faust in Bayonne in 1900; was a guest at Covent Garden every year between 1905 and 1912; created the roles of Guido Colonna (Monna Vanna) and Panurge; performed with the Boston Opera, Chicago Opera, the Colón, and La Scala; appeared in film; and ended his career as the director of the Opera in Bordeaux. His recording career began late (1924), yet Marcoux made approximately 120 sides, leaving a legacy that is well-loved by many and is highly sought-after. His voice is rich and expressive and his diction is near perfect, which alludes to his reputation as a great actor. This compilation is the first complete Vanni-Marcoux and the 6 CD-set will be offered at a substantial discount due to the generosity of our sponsor Fabrice Pilato.
On this set, Vanni-Marcoux is represented in opera (Boris Budunov, Monna Vanna, Panurge, Bohème, Jongleur, Don Quichotte, Pelléas, and others); song (Voi dormite, signora, Soupir, Plaisir d’amour, Ninon, Prière, and others); and sings Delmet’s Nouvelle chansons.