Charles Aznavour, the Opera House, September 21, 2006
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  September 22, 2006

Think Tony Bennett’s been singing forever? The Astoria crooner turned 80 last month, but he’s still two years behind Charles Aznavour. Born Shahnour Varenagh Aznavourian in Paris in 1924, Aznavour overcame the limitations of his stature (5’3’’) and a paralyzed vocal cord to become, by the 1950s, France’s best-known music-hall composer/singer, and his lead role in François Truffaut’s 1960 gangster thriller Tirez sur le pianiste/Shoot the Piano Player made him a French film star in some 75 movies, everything from Terry Southern (the hunchback juggler in Candy) to Günter Grass (Sigismund Markus in Die Blechtrommel/The Tin Drum). The gravel voice and the Parisian accent stamped him as the heir to Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf (she encouraged him, and he was her chauffeur for a time), but he’s a tough kind of flâneur, and the love that’s his almost-exclusive subject doesn’t come easily.

At the Opera House last night, September 21, however, everything came easily: the performing, the singing, and the love from the audience, which gave him a standing ovation when he took the stage. Backed by three electric guitars, four cellos, a bass, a grand piano, two keyboards, batterie, and a couple of discreetly swaying singers, France’s man in black (shirt, pants, suspenders, jacket) swung through 25 songs in a little over two hours — no intermission for this tireless troubadour. He interrupted the opening “Les émigrants” to ask the band for more bass, told us he was glad to be here (“Je suis ravi”), gently chided, still in French, a flash photographer. A string of French hits — “Que c’est triste Venise,” “Bon anniversaire,” “Paris au mois d’août,” “Non, je n’ai rien oublié,” “Les comédiens” — followed before one of the back-up singers came downstage to duet with him on the old-man/young-girl duet “Je voyage.” He looked at her so tenderly, she could have been his daughter, and it turned out she was, Katia Aznavour. The jacket came off and he switched to English: “And in My Chair” (“Et moi dans mon coin”), “You’ve Got To Learn” (“Il faut savoir”), “She” (used in Notting Hill). After a humorous exchange with the lighting crew he got an intimate mood for “Isabelle.” “Un mort vivant” paid tribute to Daniel Pearl; “The Old-Fashioned Way” (which he sang on the first season of The Muppet Show) found him waltzing with himself while a mirror ball descended; “What Makes a Man a Man?” (“Comme ils disent”) is a pointed question raised by a homosexual. He said he’d sing in Spanish if he were in a good mood, and he was, so we got “¿Quién?”, and then the concluding volley of hits, “La bohème” (which the full house had been calling for since the fourth number), “Take Me Along” (“Emmenez-moi”), and “Yesterday” (“Hier encore”).

This is Aznavour’s “Farewell Tour,” but he says it could last till 2010 or beyond. No reason why not: the voice, as he showed on the piano ballad “Sa jeunesse,” is better than ever, and his footwork hasn’t lost anything. “Yesterday, when I was young” is how that final number begins, but he’s still young, and getting younger.
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