8 August 1888 - 11 November 1951
César Vezzanis career took place during a period when French grand opera was still in its heyday, especially outside Paris, and the masterpieces of the genre, works such as La Juive, Les Huguenots, Sigurd, Hérodiade, LAfricaine, and Guillaume Tell, were still in the standard repertory. It was a time when tenors were expected to have powerful voices, with ringing high notes, and nobody would object if they could be heard over the soprano and over the orchestra. Sadly, this has now changed, and, while a large voice has become a distinct plus for a soprano, it is no longer the case for tenors.
During the years when Vezzani was active, there seemed to be a surplus of major French spinto and lyrico spinto tenors. Some, like Alexandre Guys, Maurice Talrick, and Antonin Trantoul are more or less forgotten now, because they did not leave a major recorded legacy. Those that did record extensively include, in alphabetical order, Fernand Ansseau, Léon Escalaïs, Mario Gilion, José Luccioni, Gaston Micheletti, John OSullivan, Joseph Rogatchevsky, Georges Thill, and César Vezzani.
Curiously, only three of these nine were born in continental France, with Ansseau being Belgian, OSullivan Irish by birth, but French by upbringing (his family moved to Rouen when he was a small boy), Rogatchevsky Ukrainian, and Vezzani, Micheletti, and Luccioni hailing from Corsica. That so many of these came from one of Frances smallest departments seems to defy all laws of logic, yet it is true. Oddly, the career of Mario Gilion, who was born in Marseille, took place almost entirely with Italian companies singing in Italy or Italian opera houses abroad. Strangely, two of the three most famous French lyric or lyrico spinto tenors of the period were not French either: DArkor was Belgian, and Villabella, Basque (from the Spanish side of the Basque country). The third, Edmond Clément, was a Frenchman.
While Corsica is now politically a part of France, culturally and linguistically it was long a section of Italy, being ruled by Genoa until well into the 18th century. Although almost everyone in Corsica is now fully conversant and literate in French, many people also speak Corsican, which is essentially a dialect of Italian. All church records, legal records, even inscriptions on public buildings were in Italian for years. This mixed French and Italian heritage on the part of Corsican tenors like Vezzani and Luccioni may well explain their Italianate sound. Thus, they would certainly exhibit more squillo than many of the better-known continental French and Belgian tenors possess (Léon Escalaïs and Emile Scaramberg are notable exceptions).
Vezzani was one of those rare tenors who had nearly everything: a large and gorgeous voice, a ringing top, a high degree of intelligence, the ability to sing with great sensitivity (listen to his excerpts from Werther,CD 1, Track 15; CD 2, Tracks 4 and 5), and excellent musicianship. Of course, he was not a French-stylist to the same degree as, say, Edmond Clément, but his repertory did not require that level of elegance. It seems unlikely that he ever sang Les Pêcheurs de perles or Lakmé, and, while he did sing Des Grieux in Manon (CD 1, Tracks 17 and 18), this was not one of his most frequent roles.
He had an unusual career, which was apparently limited to theaters in what were then French-speaking countries. He only had four confirmed seasons in Paris, several in Belgium, quite a few in French North Africa, and may have sung in Switzerland as well. Much of his career took place in French provincial houses, especially Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Toulon, and Rouen. For a singer of his importance, what is known about his career is minuscule, and it was only through the help of friends like Georges Cardol, Lewis Hall, Steve Herx, Alain Letort, François Nouvion, and Rudi van den Bulck, as well as a thorough examination of Comœdia (a daily Paris newspaper that has regular reports of activities in the French provinces), that it was possible to obtain the details provided below. Other facts were obtained from the few published books available on French opera houses, including those on Lyon, Marseille, Nice, and Rouen.
César Vezzani was born in Bastia, Corsica, on 8 August 1888. According to an interview with Vezzanis daughter, his father died only days before his mother gave birth. At that time, Bastia, although it counted only about 25,000 inhabitants, was the principal commercial center of the island. Along with Ajaccio, Bastia had long held regular seasons of opera, which were generally given by either French or Italian companies. But, with the exception of reports occasionally published in the Italian theatrical press, which reported the activities of Italian opera companies all over the world, or such French sources as Comœdia, very little is documented on the history of opera in Corsica.
At the beginning of the last century (various sources give 1901 and 1902 as the date), the Vezzani family moved to Toulon, where César was to make his home for many years. Many Corsicans moved to Toulon looking for work. His mother took him to Paris in 1908, where he began his vocal studies with his fellow Corsican, Agnès Borgo. A few words about Agnès Borgo, who Vezzani later was to marry, might be appropriate at this point. She had been born just outside Ajaccio on 17 April 1879, and had studied at the Conservatoire in Paris. She made her debut at the Opéra as Aida on 18 March 1904, later singing dramatic soprano roles then in vogue such as Salambô, Valentine, Brunehild in Reyers Sigurd, Elizabeth in Tannhäuser, Wagners Brünnhilde and others. She also made guest appearances at the Monnaie in Brussels in 1906-1907, and is reported to have sung on numerous other European stages. She sang intermittently at the Opéra until at least 1917, in which year she sang Marguerite in Faust. She died 7 January 1958 in Toulon.
Two years after Vezzani started studying with Mme. Borgo, Albert Carré, director of the Opéra-Comique, heard Vezzani in a selection from Hérodiade and engaged him for his company. He made his debut there in Gretrys Richard Cœur de Lion on 17 December 1911, and received tremendous ovations. Newspapers said that a star was born, and they were right.
During his first season at the Opéra-Comique, he added the role of the reaper in Meyerbeers Le Pardon de Ploërmel, better-known outside France as Dinorah. It is a small role, but has one great ariaan aria that Vezzani recorded twice, once on the Odeon label (CD 1, Track 9), and again on HMV (CD 2, Track 13). The only other well-known singer in that production was Henri Albers. It was not until Vezzanis second Paris season that he was to sing standard repertoire beginning with Des Grieux in Manon (with Geneviève Vix in some of the performances), followed by Cavalleria rusticana, Tosca, and Carmen. Later that season, on 2 April 1913, Vezzani sang the role of Don Enrique in the rarely performed La Sorcière by Camille Erlanger, a role which had been created a year earlier by Léon Beyle. It was also during this season that Vezzani made his first operatic appearance abroada Tosca in Antwerp on 10 January 1913.
César Vezzani married his former teacher Agnès Borgo, who was nine years his senior, in August of 1913, and Agnès later gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Anita. In the fall of that year Vezzani had his first-known engagement in the French provinces, singing Des Grieux in Massenets Manon in Toulon, followed by Don José in Carmen and Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana. There is a brief report on him in the Comœdia of 16 November 1913, to the effect that Vezzani, one of our citizens, has come to Toulon to give us a series of guest appearances before his departure for the United States where a brilliant engagement beckons him. This excellent artist made his debut in Manon with a great success, and is to sing several additional roles. This raises a bit of a mystery since there is no trace of a United States engagement for Vezzani during the 1913-1914 season. In any case, we know that Vezzani returned to Paris by the spring of 1914, singing at the Gaîté-Lyrique. It was there that he created the role Buzot in Madame Roland by Félix Fourdrain on 1 April 1914. There is an extensive review in Comœdia ,1 April 1914, of his dress rehearsal:
Vezzani reappeared in Paris in the role of Buzot. His very beautiful voice, ample and pleasant, with a warm sound in his middle range, and a ringing top, has delighted the public of the Gaîté-Lyrique which warmly celebrated his return. But may the young artist beware of the easy successes which this voice of silver and bronze will bring him. It remains for him to acquire, more completely, the qualities that make for a great singer, which would permit him to have a first-class career. These comprise the flexibility of that most admirable of instruments: the human voice, the restraint of style, the exactness of the rhythm, and finally the art of shading and coloring his sound. His progress so far is as evident as his willingness to perform well. He played his role with the juvenile ardor that I had predicted before the performance, externalizing, perhaps excessively the gestures, sentiments and emotional state of Buzot. It does not matter; one can not deny that Vezzani justifies the famous adage that, in order to sing, one needs voice, voice, and more voice.
On 25 May 1914, also at the Gaîté-Lyrique, Vezzani created the role of Latko Sobar in Radda by Guido Bianchini. That same evening, he sang Yamato in the Paris premiere of Yato by the Australian pianist, Marguerite Labori, a role that had been created by Giovanni Martinelli in Monte Carlo a year earlier. Incidentally, he also sang Canio that season.
Vezzani and Agnès were engaged for the 1914-1915 season at the Boston Opera, and possibly for Chicago as well, but the outbreak of the First World War prevented their leaving France. Vezzani was soon called into active duty and was subsequently wounded at the front. It is not clear when this happened, or how soon after that he resumed singing. Apparently, his first wartime season was back in Toulon, but there is nothing available at this time about his roles there during 1915-1916. This, alas, is the difficulty in researching Vezzanis careerthe Toulon opera does not have the necessary archives, and there is no comprehensive history of the theater. Comœdia was not published from mid-1914 to late 1919, and newspapers from Toulon at this time are not easily available. The same problems apply to Vezzanis next two seasons, which are known to have been in Marseille. While there are several books available on opera in Marseille, the best of these for the period up to 1924, by Victor Combarnous, only tells the reader that he was engaged there as a ténor de lOpéra-Comique from 1916-1917 and 1917-1918. In this instance the term opéra comique merely signifies that he was to sing operas in the repertory of the Opéra-Comique in Paris, as opposed to the grand operas given at the Opéra. For the first of the two seasons, Combarnous lists the operas by title, but without casts. Of these, Tosca, Manon, Werther, Carmen, Pagliacci, and others were already in Vezzanis repertory, or seem reasonable for him to have sung. For the ensuing season, which opened in October, Combarnous merely cites a Manon on 8 January 1918, and a Carmen with Marie Delna.
Vezzani again disappears from sight for the rest of 1918 and all of 1919. The only thing that is known is that he and Agnès Borgo were divorced in 1919. During the winter of 1920 he sang in Bastia, but there is again no indication of his roles. By the autumn of that year, he was at the Grand Théâtre in Ghent, Belgium. Although the bulk of the population spoke Dutch, the operas were apparently given in French, even when some of the singers were Flemish. His debut there took place on 26 November in what was to be one of his principal rolesthat of Sigurd in Reyers opera. The plot of Sigurd covers essentially the same subject as the last two parts of Wagners Ring, but shows far more influence of the great Meyerbeer than is evident in Wagners now better-known tetralogy. It is, in a sense, as French as the Ring is German. The work has rarely been performed outside the francophone world, but stayed in the repertory there for over fifty years. It seems like a work that would be appropriate for revival, when and if a tenor with the vocal prowess required for the title role can be found. In Ghent, the two leading soprano roles were sung by Béatrice Andriani, and the later famous Vina Bovy. They also appeared with him in Massenets Hérodiade on 10 December. The Belgian premiere of Févriers Gismonda followed on 19 January, with La Favorite and De Laras Messaline being performed later. It seems possible that Vezzani also sang in Antwerp after the Ghent season, but that has not yet been confirmed.
Vezzani returned to Bastia that spring, no further details being available, then disappeared for a while. There are several possible explanations for these disappearances: Comœdias reports on opera performances outside Paris are inconsistent, and the places cited vary from year to year. Bordeaux is almost always included, Cannes, Lyon, and Geneva virtually never. Cities, such as Rouen, Toulon, and Toulouse are frequently mentioned in some seasons, and not in others. Thus, there is never any certainty that reviews or announcements from the towns where Vezzani sang would be reported in Comœdia.
Vezzani returned to the Opéra-Comique in Paris for the early winter of 1921-1922. He sang a Pagliacci on 29 December and a Cavalleria rusticana on 2 January, followed by additional performances of both operas. He also had been announced for a Carmen on 27 January, but this was canceled due to his being indisposed. There is a strong indication that he was on the roster of the Opéra-Comique for several more years. Henri Geispitzs book on opera in Rouen cites Vezzani as being from the Opéra-Comique through the 1928-1929 season. By 1929-1930, however, Geispitz no longer lists this affiliation.
I was unable to find any reports of Vezzanis activities during the rest of 1922, or most of 1923. But he did sing Gismonda and Carmen in Tunis during the autumn of 1923, and an entire series of operas in St. Etienne during the early winter of 1924. These include Tosca, LAfricaine, Rigoletto, Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, Carmen, and Werther. While in St. Etienne, he made a side trip to Clermont-Ferrand, where he sang Carmen and Hérodiade. During the spring, he traveled to Béziers for Werther, Carmen, Hérodiade, and Sigurd. That autumn he sang for the second time in North Africa, and the first time in Algiers. As early as the 1830s Italian touring companies regularly visited the Algerian capital, which was to become a principal center of French opera for over a century. Vezzanis roles in Algiers that autumn included Cavaradossi, Jean, Don José, Werther, Sigurd, and the tenor lead in Gismonda.
It is difficult to say when Vezzani attained stardomhe had certainly made numerous acoustic records for Odeon as early as 1913 and many others for French HMV during the ensuing years, but (except for his two earlier Marseille seasons) did not really start singing regularly in the most important French theaters outside Paris until 1925. From this point on Vezzanis career centered on the major French provincial houses with occasional appearances in Belgium, Switzerland, and North Africa. During autumn and winter seasons Vezzani often sang in Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulon, Toulouse, Nice, Rouen, and Nantes. The principal spring seasons were usually in Béziers and Perpignan, while Vichy and various seaside resorts should be mentioned for the summer months. His repertory was substantial. In the French repertory, his favorites seem to have been Sigurd, Werther, Samson et Dalila, Hérodiade, LAfricaine, Carmen, and Le Roi dYs. Among Italian operas Vezzani usually sang Le Trouvère, Rigoletto, Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, Aida, and Tosca. The strange thing about Vezzanis career is that he never sang at the Opéra. There are any number of explanations for this, such as his inability to get along with the theaters management, a preference for the South of France, and a lack of desire to seek a position with a prestigious opera house. He had a reputation for enjoying female companionship and for a dependence on alcohol. He married twice more, first to a Madame Bonnafoux, a dancer by whom he had a son, and finally to another woman named Marie Begnini.
Until the outbreak of World War II, he divided his time among several theaters, as was typical of artists of his stature. During the war years he seems to have spent much of his time in French North Africa, a region where, as in the mother country, every important city had its own opera house. He remained active for several years after the end of World War II, until he suffered a stroke while warming up his voice for a performance of Sigurd in Toulon on 11 August 1948. He was only sixty at the time, but retired to Bastia for another three years. These were miserable years for him, unexpectedly deprived of a source of income, he existed in poverty and was dependent on money raised by his many friends in order to pay the rent. His condition worsened in 1951 and he was transferred to a Marseille hospital where he died on 11 November of that year. He was buried in Bastia on 22 November 1951.