César Vezzani never enjoyed an international career, but he was known throughout the musical world through his splendid recordings. His complete recording of Gounod’s Faust with soprano Mireille Berthon and the venerable Marcel Journet enjoyed tremendous popularity until the close of the 78rpm era. Yet, it should be noted that Vezzani seems to have sung the opera on only a few occasions prior to his making the complete recording. This raises the question: How much of the material recorded by Vezzani did he actually perform in the opera house? Some information about Vezzani’s stage repertoire can be gleaned from the theatrical newspaper, Comœdia, which contains performance announcements and reviews of some, but not nearly all, of Vezzani’s appearances throughout the French provinces and North Africa. We have more or less comprehensive chronologies for some of the French theaters where Vezzani sang: Paris, Marseilles, Toulouse, Nice, Rouen, Nantes, Angers, and Rennes. This information gives us a fairly good idea of Vezzani’s activities, but unfortunately complete information for many other cities where the tenor sang or may have sung (Algiers, Amiens, Bastia, Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lyons, Montpellier, St. Etienne, Strasbourg, Toulon, Vichy, and other houses) does not yet exist. Only when this documentation becomes available will we know for certain all the roles he did and did not sing. New information is gradually emerging and most recently, my dear friend, Georges Cardol, of Verviers, Belgium, has provided invaluable information on Vezzani’s early appearances in Marseilles, Toulon, and Avignon.
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During Vezzani’s early career through 1913, he sang principally in Paris at the Opéra Comique. His first known appearance outside France took place in Antwerp on 10 January 1913, where he sang the role of Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca. After some Toulon appearances in November 1913, he sang Manon, Carmen, and Tosca in Marseilles, and then returned to Paris for a season at the Gaitée Lyrique.
During the First World War, Vezzani spent some or all of the 1915-1916 season in Toulon and the 1916-1917 season in Marseilles. The 1917-1918 season was split between Marseilles and Toulon. He was in Marseilles during the late summer of 1917 singing Tosca, Cavalleria, Manon, and Werther at a small theater on or near the beach. He was next in Toulon singing Tosca, Werther, and what may be his first Faust. He returned to Marseilles for Manon, Werther, Carmen, La favorite, and his earliest traceable Sigurd. He ended the season in Toulon for additional Werthers and Toscas, as well as two La favorites. He spent the last summer of World War I (1918) at two lesser theaters in Marseilles singing Tosca, Werther, Faust, Cavalleria, Carmen, and probably his first Bohème. During the 1918-1919 season Vezzani sang in La bohème, Pagliacci, and Tosca in Avignon, and then in Marseilles he appeared in Werther, Cavalleria, and Tosca. All that is known about his activities in the 1919-1920 season is that he sang unidentified works in his native Bastia, followed in March by Tosca, Carmen, and Werther in Toulon.
Late in 1920, Vezzani returned to Belgium after a seven-year absence, this time appearing in Ghent. There, he opened with Sigurd, followed by three roles that may well have been firsts: Jean in Massenet’s Hérodiade, Hélion in de Lara’s Messaline, and, in January 1921, the Belgian premiere of Février’s Gismonda. It is possible that he had already sung Hérodiade in Toulon, Marseilles, or Bastia, since the opera was fairly standard repertoire at the time. Messaline, however, was certainly not commonly performed even then, and Gismonda was very new, having just reached Paris in the previous year. During the spring of 1921, Vezzani was in Bastia, where he sang a solo part in Narcisse, an early choral work by Massenet, as part of a concert. Later that year, Vezzani returned to Paris after a seven-year absence, appearing at the Opéra Comique during its 1921-1922 season. His brief stay there was, however, followed by another extended period when we know nothing of his whereabouts. Fortunately, beginning in the autumn of 1923 coverage of Vezzani’s activities by the theatrical newspaper Comœdia improved drastically, making it possible to ascertain more accurate and numerous details of his career. At this time, he was reported to be singing in Tunisia, probably the first of many North African visits, which he would make over the next 25 years. In fact, the very next year, 1924, Vezzani sang his first performances in Algiers*.
Back in France the same year, Vezzani sang at Nantes, Clermont-Ferrand, and Béziers, as well as St. Etienne, where he gave his first traceable performance of Vasco di Gama in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. This opera had been immensely popular throughout Europe during the mid-19th century but by 1900 it had begun to run its course. Abandoned by the Opéra in 1902, it was performed in other Paris theaters in 1910 and 1918, after which it seems to have been completely neglected in the capital. This was not so in the French provinces, however, where it continued to flourish into the 1930s.
Early in 1925, Vezzani added Xavier Leroux’s Le chemineau to his repertoire during a matinée performance in Angers, also singing Cavaradossi for the evening performance. Other appearances that season included Sigurd in Nantes and Carmen in Clermont-Ferrand. During the spring of 1925 he returned to Marseilles for the first time in years to sing Sigurd and Cavaradossi. We again lose sight of him in late spring and summer, but he re-appears in autumn 1925 to sing his first of many Bordeaux seasons. There, he sang what may well have been his first Samson in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila. He also performed in his recently added L’Africaine, as well as his standard fare, Carmen, Cavalleria, Werther, Bohème, Pagliacci, and Tosca. Incidentally, during this phase of Vezzani’s career, it was rare for his colleagues to be well known stars, but a notable exception was Vanni-Marcoux, who portrayed Scarpia in these Bordeaux Toscas.
Prior to this important Bordeaux season, Vezzani had been generally considered to be a ténor de l’opéra-comique. While slowly beginning to sing a heavier repertoire such as Sigurd and Hérodiade, the real turning point for Vezzani came with his first Vasco in Saint Etienne late in 1924 and his first Samson in Bordeaux during the autumn of the following year.
Vezzani took a brief side trip to Marseilles in early 1926 for Gismonda, and then went to Bordeaux for Werther, Hérodiade, Samson, and Tosca with Genevieve Vix. He also made his debut in Toulouse singing his first confirmed performance of Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys, along with L’Africaine, and his other customary favorites. He returned to Bordeaux in the autumn singing Tosca, Pagliacci, La favorite, Cavalleri rusticana, Hérodiade, La bohème, Rigoletto, and Carmen with Genevieve Vix. A review of the first three operas appears on pages 26-27 of César Vezzani Ténor Corse international, by Marie-France Bereni and Mathilde Casalta, Bastia, 1993:
The sympathetic tenor who has become the local favorite (the review describes him as the “spoiled child”) of the Bordelais made his return as Cavaradossi, then in the role of Canio. There was nothing in this double challenge which could frighten the marvelous singer whose valor remains complete and whose marvelous voice retains always the same range and the same ease. Arias like the famous “Lamento” or the “Ridi, Pagliaccio” brought him ovations.
In La favorite, César Vezzani was an irreproachable Fernand from all points of view. From the aria “Une ange, une femme inconnue,” up to the duet “Viens vers une autre patrie,” he gathered the approval of the listeners. This role of Fernand, heavy as it is, exceeds neither the means, nor the valor of this artist, who, as is his habit, fulfilled its requirements. Vezzani has a first name, which obliges him to win all the battles that he wishes to fight. M. César Vezzani comes from that line of admirable singers, from Duc to Caruso, of which he demonstrates that he is a worthy descendant.
After this stint in Bordeaux, he spent the remainder of the autumn and early winter singing in Marseilles, followed by a brief season in Toulouse where, besides the usual fare, he sang his first Julien in Charpentier’s Louise with Gabrielle Ritter-Ciampi in the title role. Back in Bordeaux in the autumn of 1927, Vezzani sang one of his few Fausts, and again, Louise, this time with Genevieve Vix. His next stop was the resort town of Royan on the Atlantic coast where he spent July and August singing at least 11 different operas. During the 1927-1928 season, he sang in Perpignan, Toulouse, and Lyon, where it seems he never sang again. He performed Le roi d’Ys during his first visit to Rouen, and finished his tour in Marseilles with Massenet’s Manon. His Roi d’Ys in Rouen must have been a success, for he was invited back for a series of guest appearances in the autumn of 1928, singing nine roles. These were followed by performances of Rigoletto with Gabrielle Ritter-Ciampi, Werther, Le roi d’Ys, and Carmen in Marseilles during the winter, and Carmen in Toulouse, Tosca in Perpignan, and Sigurd in Nantes that spring. Autumn 1929 was divided among Rouen, Nantes, and Clermont-Ferrand, while he spent much of the winter in Rennes singing in Samson, Tosca, Hérodiade, Sigurd, and Werther. Later in 1930, he returned to Perpignan for a Hérodiade with Mireille Berthon who, that same year, made the legendary recording of Gounod’s Faust with him. Vezzani finished the season in Marseilles and Bordeaux, where he sang in Hérodiade, La favorite, Samson, L’Africaine, and Messaline with Vanni-Marcoux.
By this point in his career, Vezzani had achieved full-fledged fort téno r status, singing the heavier French repertoire such as Sigurd, Samson, and Hérodiade. He continued singing the same roles in more or less the same cities, plus Vichy, over the next few years (details will be provided in the liner notes for the final Vezzani CD). Then, during the 1935-1936 season in Rouen and Toulouse, he undertook the role of Éléazar in Halévy’s La Juive. Concurrently, however, he continued singing the lighter roles of Don José, Massenet’s des Grieux, and Werther. His Italian roles were, with the exception of the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto, the popular verismo favorites – Turiddu, Canio, and Cavaradossi, with an occasional Rodolfo. He is also known to have added Radamès to his roles, probably during the 1940s in Algiers.
Judging from the number of recordings that Vezzani made from such mid-19th century grand operas as Guillaume Tell, La favorite, La Juive, Le prophète, and L’Africaine, one might draw the conclusion that he was a specialist in this repertoire. But that is simply not the case. He never specialized in these roles to the same degree that Leon Escalaïs did earlier or John O’Sullivan did during Vezzani’s time. Vasco in L’Africaine and Fernand in La favorite were undoubtedly a part of Vezzani’s repertoire, and as previously mentioned, he did add Éléazar in La Juive later in his career. Yet, he preferred to concentrate on such late 19th century operas as Hérodiade, Sigurd, Werther, and Messaline. Among the Verdi operas, Vezzani recorded arias from Jérusalem, Rigoletto, Le trouvère, Aida, and Otello with great authority, giving one the impression that he actually sang these operas in the opera house. Yet except for Radamès, which Vezzani performed only late in his career, the duke in Rigoletto seems to have been his only Verdi role.
The Wagnerian repertoire presents a similar case and perhaps even greater mystery. The entry on Vezzani in Kutsch/Riemens Großes Sängerlexikon, Bd. 3 states that Lohengrin, Siegmund, and Siegfried were among his major roles. No documented evidence has yet come to light to support this claim, even though it has been repeated by a number of scholars. While we cannot positively state that Vezzani never sang Wagner, we do know enough about his career to be certain that Wagnerian roles, if he sang them at all, were not a significant part of his repertoire. And yet, his Wagner recordings are sung with such authority that we can’t help but wonder why not. The fact is that, as popular as Wagner was in Paris, he was less so in provincial cities. Taking Lohengrin as an example, we find that up to the 1962-1963 season, Lohengrin received 621 performances in Paris, compared to a mere 139 in Marseilles. During the same time period, Reyer’s Sigurd, one of Vezzani’s most prominent roles, was given 252 times in Paris, to an astonishing 262 in Marseilles1. Since the great bulk of Vezzani’s career took place in French language theaters outside Paris, would it seem surprising thatWagner played little or no part in his repertoire? After all, it is Vezzani’s records that have placed him in the pantheon of great French tenors, and we must be grateful that he has bequeathed such a wealth of singing that goes even beyond his stage career.
©Tom Kaufman, 2005
* This prestigious theater in Algiers had first opened in 1853, after which it had fairly regular seasons of French opera and occasional seasons with touring Italian companies. Audiences there had heard Leon Escalaïs in 1892-1893 and again in 1909. Camille Saint-Saëns appeared there in 1910, directing several of his latest works. After World War I, Algiers was to hear Paul Franz in 1925-1926, Miguel Villabella in 1927-1928, and John O’Sullivan in 1931-1932.
Vezzani’s acoustic recordings presented here are the product of eight sessions in the Paris studios of La voix de son maître, two in the summer of 1924 (the two in June and July 1924 are in Volume 1), six in the winter of 1925. They are supplemented by a selection of the electric recordings he made in 1927 and through the mid-1930s.
The great Corsican tenor’s attributes are well known: an individual, ringing heroic tenor voice, rich in head resonance, even throughout the range, particularly free in the passage notes. Less inclined than his contemporary Georges Thill to sing in head voice, he rivals him in musicianship and clarity of diction. These qualities are amply in evidence in the two excerpts from Sigurd (two others, and an early “Esprit, gardiens” are in Volume 1; he rerecorded all four, electrically, in 1927). It was the role he came to be mostly identified with, to the extent that the massive stroke he suffered in 1948, as he was about to sing it one more time, can be said to have killed the opera as well. Vezzani’s characteristic mannerism, the occasional addition of a grace note where none is required, can be heard on the first “que viendra dire” in “Esprits, gardiens.”
The two arias from La favorite display a more heroic Fernand than we are used to. While Vezzani ducks the C sharp in “Un ange, une femme inconnue,” revealing the limitations of his upper register, “Ange si pur” shows him at his best: note the seamless legato, a lovely portamento between “faibli” and “pitié,” the elegantly executed appoggiaturas, a stylish, interpolated gruppetto in the coda. Vezzani’s vocal gifts were ideally suited to Meyerbeer. His Raoul (a role he must have sung) is impressive, if not ideally observant of the dynamics markings. As Jean in Le prophète, he sings both verses of “Pour Bertha,” with the (written) grace notes finely in place, even though he fails to attack the B flat piano on “où Bertha” as required. “Roi du ciel,” rivaling Slezak in clarion-like bite, is also notable for the clarity of diction (always a challenge in Meyerbeer). In L’Africaine, he had one of his greatest roles, as evidenced by “O paradis,” where the “très doux et soutenu” attack is scrupulously observed. In the two Vasco-Selika duets, he is admirably partnered with the young Odette Ricquier (born 1908), leading to thrilling B flats and Bs in unison; the Act 4 duet ends with a “concert” ff reprise of “O transports, ô douce extase” rather than the pp coda.
In the days when La Juive was a staple of French provincial theaters much as Carmen and Samson et Dalila, Vezzani would have been an impressive Éléazar, as witnessed by his eloquent Passover cavatine (“Rachel, quand du Seigneur” is in Volume 1). Much as one is tempted to assume that he sang the role on stage, it has not been possible to establish when or where. Vezzani did, of course, appear regularly as Don José and as Samson. His Dalila in the Act 2 duet, Maria Duchêne, Léon Rothier’s second wife (born 1884), was then at the end of a brilliant career which included the New York premieres of Boris Godunov and L’amore dei tre re. While her singing is not equal to one’s expectations, Vezzani’s biblical hero (supported in the acoustic “Israel, romps ta chaîne,” by a skeleton chorus) is a classic interpretation of a role that the disappearance of the French fort ténor has made impossible to cast in France today.
While one does not spontaneously think of Vezzani in connection with Verdi, his clear tenor does wonder in the three Otello excerpts, two of which he had already recorded for Odéon early in his career; the third, “Dio, mi potevi,” stops rather abruptly, at “mi fa lieto.” It is not certain whether he sang the part in the theater. He sang, however, the Duke of Mantua, Manrico, and Radamès. Oddly, “Quella o quella” lacks some of the grace notes, but how wonderfully Vezzani delivers the words “amour et liberté”! And while his “La donna è mobile” may lack the vocal refinement of D’Arkor, it conveys all the cockiness and charm the character calls for. Similarly, the divisions of “Di quella pira” (both verses) have been more cleanly executed, but few Manricos exhibit such fervor and firmness of tone. Interestingly, the final high C is sung on the second syllable of “mourir” (rather than the usual “en garde”), allowing for extra head resonance. Vezzani’s participation in “Ai nostri monti,” in which he sensitively partners the Opéra contralto Marie Charbonnel (born 1880), is an even more remarkable document, showing him at his eloquent, moving best. In “Celeste Aida” (which oddly omits the held F connecting the two verses), the signature-interpolated grace note is noticeable on the first “digne des cieux.”
The generous Wagner extracts heard here confirm that Vezzani had the perfect Lohengrin voice. Did he sing the role in the provinces, while Thill owned it in Paris? His tiny slips, vocal or textual, seem to indicate that he sang it from memory; at the very least he would have sung highlights in concert. There is certainly no hint of strain in the acoustic “Atmest du nicht” and “Höchstes Vertraun” (with the usual cut of 34 bars from “dass ich in dir mög glucklich” to “Drum wollestets”); the Bridal Chamber duet with Mireille Berthon, his partner in the 1930 Faust (and a worthier one than Thill’s Marthe Nespoulos), is complete save for two small cuts in addition to the one in “Höchstes Vertraun.” Vezzani is an equally impressive Siegmund, urgent in both his versions of “Ein Schwert,” warm and expressive in “Winterstürme,” despite the somewhat awkward French translation, different from the standard one by Alfred Ernst and requiring many additional notes.
In the more contemporary repertory, Vezzani was a famous Turridu, the “stendando” A flats of the Siciliana holding no terror for him. His recording of the final scene begins at “Lo so che il torto è mio” and continues through “Mama, qual vino,” without Alfio or Mama Lucia’s interventions. The Manon Lescaut excerpts are more than curiosities, as Puccini’s work, owing to the understandable popularity of Massenet’s Manon, has never had in France the same success as elsewhere and, as a result, few French tenors have recorded them. This makes Vezzani’s ardent, idiomatic contributions even more valuable, especially since the part suits his vocal gifts more naturally than the Massenet. Having recorded in July 1924 the “Ah! Manon, mi tradisce” section of the Act 2 duet, “Ah! non v’avvicinate” from Act 3, and “Donna non vidi mai” (this number in Volume 1), he added the entrance aria on 16 February 1925, on the same day he recorded “Un tal gioco” and “No, Pagliaccio non son” from Pagliacci, a part he sang regularly, but no copy of these has been traced. The Leoncavallo song (with orchestral accompaniment) is a rare instance of Vezzani singing in Italian, with more than a whiff of French accent. French verismo is represented by the exquisite short aria from La Navarraise, not as suave an account as Vanzo’s, but of a vocal caliber probably closer to Alvarez, the original Araquil.
The Gismonda aria is the least familiar number. Henry Février (1875-1957), who studied with both Massenet and Messager, is best remembered today, at least by record collectors, for his 1909 Maeterlinck-based Monna Vanna (and as the father of the pianist Jacques Février). Adapted from Sardou’s play by Henri Cain and Louis Payen, Gismonda was premiered in 1919 in Chicago with Mary Garden in the title role. The first Almério, the falconer who eventually marries the Duchess of Athens, was Charles Fontaine; Vezzani sang it at the Belgian premiere in Ghent in January 1921 and later appeared in the work in several other venues, including Tunis and Algiers. His recording of “Oui, vous étiez...” from Act 2 includes an orchestral passage, between the short recitative and the aria, not present in the piano-vocal score.
Vincent Giroud, 2005
The Complete César Vezzani, Vol. 2
Complete HMV Acoustics 1924-1925
Selected Electric Recordings 1930-1933
César Vezzani (1888-1951) was one of those rare tenors who had nearly everything: a large and gorgeous voice, a ringing top, a high degree of intelligence, ability to sing with great sensitivity, and excellent musicianship. And yet, so little was known about Vezzani that it took a great deal of detective work to put together a brief biography for our first volume released early in 2003. An international career may have eluded Vezzani during his lifetime, yet his recordings leave a legacy that demonstrates an artist of the highest caliber. This second volume contains the remainder of his French HMV acoustics and a selection of French HMV electrical recordings. These include a complete Act 2, Scene 3 from Samson et Dalila of Saint Saëns with Maria Duchêne and a Bridal Chamber Scene from Wagner's Lohengrin with Mireille Berthon.