Vanzo, whose father was Mexican and his mother French, sang in a church choir as a child and at eighteen formed his own band, La Bastringue, with which he sang popular songs in local music- and dance-halls. He then studied singing in Aix-les-Bains and with Rolande Darcoeur in Paris; and while a music student, during the 1951–1952 season understudied the popular Spanish tenor Luis Mariano in the operetta Le Chanteur de Mexico at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris. His breakthrough came in 1954 when he won first prize in a singing competition for tenors held at Cannes. He was immediately invited to sing small roles in Paris at both the Opéra-Comique and the Opera, where in 1955 he took part in the first performance of Henri Barraud’s opera Numance.
By 1956 Vanzo was singing principal roles, such as the Duke / Rigoletto at the Opera and Gerald / Lakmé at the Opéra-Comique. His career developed rapidly in both these theatres and in the French provinces; parts included, in the French repertoire, the title roles in Gounod’s Faust and Werther, Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon, Nadir / Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Roméo / Roméo et Juliette and Vincent / Mireille; in the Italian repertoire he sang Alfredo / La traviata, Rodolfo / La Bohème and Edgardo / Lucia di Lammermoor, which he performed opposite Maria Callas in 1957.
International attention followed when Vanzo sang the latter role in 1960 opposite Joan Sutherland, then making her Paris Opera debut. He was invited to sing in Europe at the Théâtre de la Monnaie (Brussels), the Gran Teatro del Liceu (Barcelona), the São Carlos (Lisbon) and the Vienna State Opera; and in South America at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, where he created a strong impression as Hoffmann / Les Contes d’Hoffmann. He made his North American debut as Gennaro / Lucrezia Borgia opposite Montserrat Caballé in a legendary concert performance at Carnegie Hall, New York in 1965, while his only appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House was as a member of the Paris Opera when the company performed Gounod’s Faust there in 1977.
As Vanzo’s career developed he extended his repertoire to heavier roles, for instance the title role in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Mylio / Le Roi d’Ys, Robert / Robert le Diable, Raoul / Les Huguenots, Arrigo / I vespri siciliani, Cavaradossi / Tosca and Gabriele Adorno / Simon Boccanegra. During the latter part of his career he sang frequently in operetta, of which he was a distinguished exponent, appeared widely in the French provinces, for instance at Avignon, Lille, Marseilles, Nantes and Nice, and was a frequent performer on French television. One of his most notable later appearances was as Meyerbeer’s Robert at the Paris Opera in 1985. As well as singing Vanzo also composed songs and stage works, including the operetta Pêcheur d’Étoiles (first performance Lille, 1972) and the lyrical drama Les Chouans (first performance Avignon, 1982). He never formally retired and died of complications following a stroke.
Vanzo belonged to the last generation of French singers who learnt their repertoire in their native language and whose career was thus largely limited to France. The merger of the Paris Opera and Opéra-Comique in 1972 and the subsequent adoption of the stagione system destroyed the traditional work platforms for French singers, who were hard-pressed to combat the wave of international competition which followed. In this regrettable process, the art of French opera singing was largely lost, making the recordings of Vanzo and his colleagues invaluable documents in terms of appropriate style and technique. Vanzo himself possessed a voice of effortless beauty and great charm; he remains incomparable in roles such as Des Grieux, Gerald, Nadir, Roméo and Vincent.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist