TONY PONCET : The Last of the French “fort ténors”.

(dedicated to Claude Ribou who provided all photomaterial)
              poncet1    poncet2


Can one expect a highly critical biography of “Tony Poncet, Une voix, un destin (Editions L’Harmattan 2009, 204 p.)  written by a doting daughter on the life and the artistry of  a still legendary father ? Probably not. Moreover,  can one expect this of a daughter who was too young to ever have heard her father during his heydays ? Mathilde Poncé never saw him sing a complete opera performance, even during his deteriorating days. As Tony Poncet is still and often reviled by music critics who probably never heard him live and don’t realize the almost visceral impact the tenor had on his audiences, one understands that his daughter uses her biography  as a means to defend her father’s artistic heritage and one need not look for detailed critical reviews of his often somewhat doubtful artistic decisions. In this book you will find scarce and almost small offhand criticism always given with a smile by some of his former colleagues. But at least we now have the basic facts of  Poncet’s life and career at hand, though with one notable exception. I simply don’t get it why Mrs.  Poncé sticks to a claim her father made he was rather small and measured only 1.58 m. while she readily agrees that his small height was quite a handicap in performing his romantic roles. Would that it had been true. A guy of 1.58 m. would simply have had no problems with his length in the fifties and early sixties when men were so much smaller than nowadays. With the help of a good pair of high heeled shoes he would have cut quite an acceptable figure on the scene while most of his sopranos wouldn’t have been much taller. Enrico Caruso and Mario Del Monaco measured 1.64 m and Franco Corelli was almost a giant at the time with his handsome 1.81m. Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi towered almost always over their tenor partners and they measured 1.69 and 1.70m. I know Poncet himself made this ridiculous claim in an interview in the French magazine Musica of January 1961 but I’m sure anyone who knew the tenor told his daughter differently. In reality Tony Poncet was not rather small but extremely small. I remember too well that first moment I saw him.
poncet3 (A Vauvert, 17 August 1968, after a concert)
My father had recently bought our first car, a legendary VW-beetle, and I had purchased tickets for him and myself for a performance at the Ghent Opera of Guillaume Tell. In those days with almost no highways in Flanders a trip from my home town of Mechelen to Ghent (barely 80 kilometres) was almost an expedition and we were more than an hour in advance at the Kouter next to the theatre. We parked the car and went for a little stroll. In front of the opera house were (and still are) several good cafés and a small party was leaving one. I almost gasped when I saw the figure in the centre of the group. The head I knew well from that beloved record “Tony Poncet – Premier Grand Prix du Bel Canto – Paris 1958” (Thus no real title), though the head was much smaller than could be expected from the photograph on the record sleeve. But that small head belonged to the body of a guy who was almost a midget. Probably Poncet’s real height is a well kept state secret but a frequent partner of him, much underrated Flemish spinto Jacqueline van Quaille (1.71 m) told me that even with his high heels Poncet was several inches short of her shoulder. Therefore 1.40 m. at most was the tenor’s real length and this shortage played quite a role in his career. Reviews always stress his minuscule figure without giving details and Mrs. Poncé puts it rather cryptically when she quotes a former colleague who tells us of “ changements de scène qui pouvaient faciliter physiquement parlant sa presentation. (scene changes which could facilitate his physical presentation). “  Mrs. Poncé doesn’t give us any details what this meant in reality but here are some examples. In Guillaume Tell Jacqueline van Quaille had to sing seated the duet of the second act “Oui, vous arrachez à mon âme”, with Poncet standing next to her and their respective heights were level. In the great duet “Ou vas-tu ?” of Les Huguenots Ghent built a series of steps. Van Quaille sang Valentine at the proscenium while Poncet stood five steps higher. Even in the fifties and the sixties there was already quite a lot of noise in the operatic world asking that singers had “le fysique du role” and Poncet’s lack of height probably was a very serious handicap in having an international career in the roles he excelled in.
poncet4  poncet5 (Arène d’Arles)

Antonio (not Antoine as his daughter writes, though she publishes the correct birth act) José Ponce Miron (his mother’s name) was born on the 27th of December 1918 in Maria, a small mountain village in the Spanish Province of Almeria. Nowadays the province is often swarmed with tourists but in those days it was grindingly poor. According to Mrs. Poncé the family decided to migrate to France for political reasons in 1920 but I have strong doubts on that. The poverty of the region of Andalusia , the problems of finding work and the fact that some members of the family were already in France probably played a far more important role. The family left on foot towards a new country. There were no problems of entry. France had lost millions of men in the world war and was desperately looking for replacements. A father with three little children (two sons and one daughter) was always welcome though he would have himself to scramble together a life hood as contrary to customs nowadays fortune hunters couldn’t demand money and social security from the welfare state. The family wandered more or less around in the Haute Pyrénées region; father selling clothes until they finally settled down in the small town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre which was and is a famous spa, swamped in July by tourists as the Tour de France each year uses some of the mountains in the region for its cycling competition. As Bagnères is part of the French Basque country Poncet would later get the nickname of “le bombardier basque (the Basque bomber)”. In the meantime Antonio José had become Antoine as the French Republic at the time was still not afraid to demand compliance with French identity from migrants though not handing French nationality out for free. Antoine spoke his Andalusian Spanish at home while at school there was room only for French and nobody who heard Poncet sing could doubt that he sounded authentically French. Antoine Poncé and school were not made for each other. He detested school, often didn’t attend. His parents decided that he would be better off as a craftsman and at 13 years of age he started to work in a garage . When that shop closed Poncet became a jack off al trades; in short an unschooled man ready to do all kinds of hard manual work. Radios and record players were not at all common in the thirties and a lot of people fulfilled their craving for music by making music themselves. Young Poncet became a member of a regional chorus that sang the folk tunes of the region and as a chorister he got his first singing lessons. That way he discovered other parts of France as the chorus often performed in Nice and even in Paris. Mrs. Poncé doesn’t tell us if her father ever attended an operatic performance when during the season operas were  performanced in the local Casino for the tourists. Probably Poncet couldn’t afford a ticket. In September 1939 war was declared between France and Germany. Poncet, still Spanish as he was not born on French soil, decided to follow his friends who were drafted. He became a soldier in a Foreign Volunteers Battalion. His motivation was probably a mix of patriotism for his adopted country, sympathy with his friends and the possibility of full employment in difficult times. His battalion was sent to the Somme (his daughter mentions “the front on the 6th of May” which is impossible as the Germans didn’t attack until the 10th) where a month later he was wounded during “la bataille de France “ (Anglo-Saxons often deride the viciousness of the battle as France capitulated after one month and a half;  100.000 French soldiers were killed). Poncet was sent to a prison camp in Bavaria. Twice he vainly tried to escape. Most of the time he worked with other French prisoners on farms; a rather healthy business and necessary as well as there were no longer young Germans available as they were fighting and dying at the Eastern front. After almost five years of captivity Poncet and his friends were liberated by the Americans and he immediately volunteered and was accepted by them. He was one of the liberators of the hell-hole of Dachau. After the German surrender he returned to Bagnères-de-Bigorre with several medals for heroism but still without an education. He started working in construction: hard back breaking work. He applied for French nationality and easily and deservedly got his passport. He still sang a lot together with friends and he even competed in a singing contest, winning with “Me grimer” (= Vesti la giubba), at the time an aria so popular even pop singers sang it. There clearly was something in the voice that encouraged people to advise him to try a professional singing career. His father objected as there was no money to support the budding tenor while he studied but Poncet realised it was now or never. He was already 28 when he left for Paris to try his luck. 
poncet6 (Verviers, theatre, Wallonia)
He was lucky as Paris and France were in need of singers. Nowadays one cannot imagine the richness of French musical life in those days. Almost every city of 100.000 inhabitants (and sometimes less) had a season of opera and operetta. Everything was performed in the vernacular. There wasn’t  a dearth of good French singers but the opportunities were so plentiful there was room for more. They did not need an international career as the mother country offered so many performances. France in the forties and the early fifties was more than the hexagon. It included overseas departments as they were called (Algeria); fully part of France (though most Arabs didn’t have the right to vote) and there too opera and operetta was immensely popular.
poncet7 (Algers, opera house)
And there was Wallonia, at the time one of the richest parts of Western Europe and a far cry from the downtrodden place it is nowadays. Verviers, Mons, Namur were small provincial cities (less than 60.000 inhabitants) but they too had important lyrical seasons. Operatic world creations did not abound any more though there were still important premières but it’s typical that the most performed modern new French opera was created in Italian at La Scala (Dialogues des Carmelites). Operetta however was very much alive and more popular in provincial theatres than opera. There were several competing operetta theatres in Paris and the Opéra-Comique too often performed light hearted works with dialogue; often classical operettas. Several pre-war composers like Maurice Yvain or Georges van Parys had new successes after the war. On top of the list of triumphs was the name of a young Basque composer Francis Lopez who employed the services of a young Spanish tenor: Luis Mariano. Lopez had scored a gigantic hit with “La Belle de Cadix” premièred in a small theatre in a Paris suburb. He was invited by the main operetta theatre La Gaîté-Lyrique to write another “opérette à grand spectacle” and offered “Andalousie” with Mariano to replace “Chanson Gitane” by Yvain; a successful operetta too which had kept the boards for a whole year. Once more Lopez delivered “un success-fou” (a crazy success). Mrs. Poncé doesn’t tell us if that other Andalusian sang in the chorus in the world première but she mentions a tenor competition for the theatre chorus won by her father. For four years he was a member of the Gaîté-chorus and performed in new operettas like “Andalousie”, “Chanson gitane” or classical ones like Offenbach’s “La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein”, Audran’s “Le Grand Mogol” and especially Lehar’s “Le Pays du Sourire ( = Das Land des Lächelns)” which would play an important role in Poncet’s own career. Mrs. Poncé never gives us a figure for the tenor’s earnings (it is possible there were no copies of contracts in her heritage) but in his Gaîté-days it will not have amounted to much as he had to share a room with another singer. Still, his main reason for being in Paris was to study singing and that could be combined with his job as a chorister. Theoretically he was too old to start studying at the Conservatory but after the war all participating countries voted laws with age exceptions for veterans or prisoners of war for jobs with national or local governments or applications to study. Poncet presented himself at the entrance examination with one of his popular songs he knew so very well from listening to Miguel Fleta: “Ay, ay, ay” and it is no co-incidence this would figure on his first magnificent LP-recital. The jury had asked for a Méhul aria and was probably shocked by the tenor’s ignorance but still recognized there were a rare timbre and power and the possibility of a career. Therefore Poncet was allowed to be a member of a distinguished class. Every vocal buff knows Gabriel Bacquier and most have heard of tenor Michel Sénéchal. Somewhat less known in the Anglo-Saxon world are baritone Jean-Christophe Benoît and light soprano Liliane Berton who would make so many charming records. The biography is not very clear on Poncet’s musical education. There is the revealing sentence of his teacher of “solfège” that he didn’t read music, that he even didn’t know the name of the notes at his start and another colleague later on mentions that score reading was one of Poncet’s weaknesses. So we may well conclude that the tenor learnt his roles by rote which was not unusual at the time. His later colleague at the Paris Opéra Albert Lance (the Australian Lance Ingram) was a very secure artist and not shy to admit that he couldn’t read a score. It is possible Poncet’s limited amount of roles was due to his music reading problems. Anyway he combined a study for 4 years at the Conservatory while at the same time singing at the Gaîté and often working night shifts as well at the famous Les Halles de Paris where at the time all the food for Paris was unloaded.
poncet8   poncet9 (G. Botiaux)

By 1952 he was ready to start his career; already 34 years of age. Unless one is Beniamino Gigli, starting as a professional tenor is not easy though it was less difficult than nowadays as theatres didn’t plan years in advance. It is not clear what Poncet did while preparing some roles. He probably continued working as a labourer. According to the chronology in his daughter’s book he started with a concert in Lyon, France’s second city, in January 1953. A few days later he made his official opera début at the municipal theatre of Avignon, the famous city in the south of France that once hosted the popes. It must have been quite an occasion for Poncet as he had to sing the roles of Turiddu and Canio at the same time, no mean feat. The names of his co-artists are now fully forgotten which probably proves that everybody was hired on the cheap so that the management could demand the tenor to sing the two roles. He was quite successful and he started a habit, not uncommon at the time in provincial theatres and a trait for which he would become famous: giving encores ( “Vesti la giubba” in Avignon though of course he sang it as “Me grimer”). The  published review mentions he is quite young: 23 years of age which was more than eleven years of the mark. Soon after he sang once again Canio at the far better known Capitole of Toulouse and this time Pierre Nougarou and Jeanette Vivalda are names of co-artists which still ring a bell while conductor Georges Prêtre was at the outset of a world career. It is possible this was not more than a substitution as apart from some concerts in his home town his agenda was empty for 8 months. Therefore he decided to take part in a kind of event which today would be simply impossible: a “ Concours International des ténors” at the Mediterranean resort of Cannes.
poncet10 (Cannes)
Nowadays one is happy when a few tenors turn up at a singing contest but in those days it was not strange to pass judgment on hundreds of hopefuls of that most rare vocal category. The jury subdivided the species into several sub-categories and handed prizes out accordingly. There is a well-known photo of all the winners. Each of them got 250.000 French francs (500 $). The results were simply astonishing. To the left is Tony Poncet, winner in the category “fort-ténor”. Next to him stands the somewhat lesser known Roger Gardes, winner of “ténor leger”, but still a tenor with a 30 year career at the Opéra-Comique and still known as Rodolfo in a French language recording of La Bohème with Marta Angelici. Next to Gardes is Guy Chauvet,  second prize in the spinto category but promising enough to stand on the scene with the others. Chauvet would have a world career. Then we see Gustave Botiaux; winner of  the spinto competition. Botiaux would mainly have a career in the French speaking countries where he was immensely popular and his four vocal recitals are now to be found on a double CD. And the last of the five winners (lyric) is the most famous of them all: that paragon of tenor singing Alain Vanzo. One is reminded of that other famous tenor competition: Parma 1914 with Gigli winning the lyric and Francesco Merli the spinto prize but still a competition with five tenors who went on to gain renown is unheard of and some of the non-winners like Robert Gouttebroze had a good career as well. To win the fort-ténor prize Poncet sang “O Céleste Aida” and “Supplice infâme ( = Di quella pira). There exists a live recording of the competition which is the first recording of Poncet’s voice. The sound is unmistakably Poncet’s with top notes blazing forth but at the same time one sits up and takes note of his purity of style; not always one of his best qualities later on. He sings the Celeste Aida as a real love song with delicate shades of mezza-voce and piano though of course clinging to the traditional high B at the end. Even in 1954 France was not rich anymore in dramatic tenors and one wonders why his career didn’t take flight afterwards. I suspect once more his height was the deciding factor as the big theatres could have hired him as they all had a representative in the jury. According to his daughter he was noticed by Abe Saperstein (himself only 1.55 m), the famous boss of the Harlem Globetrotters, the black basket ball team which extensively toured Europe in the fifties. The Jewish Saperstein was impressed by the huge voice which didn’t correspond with the small frame and he was probably reminded of his co-religionist Joseph Schmidt, he too a 1.40 meter guy. He took Poncet with him to the U.S., promised him extensive concert engagements and probably some operatic ones as well. In reality Poncet sang in unimportant and small hamlets and in night clubs and his daughter tells us that he didn’t get the fees he had a right to. During his American stay he definitely changed his name into Tony Poncet. On one of his records an anonymous sleeve note writer (quoting extensively Jean-Louis Caussou’s article in Musica) tells us he even sang at the Met; a seemingly ridiculous statement as the same writer tells us Poncet was a star at La Scala where he never performed. The strange thing is that a now deceased contributor of Opera-L once wrote me he heard Poncet at the Met, though not with the Met. The house on 39th Street was often rented out when the season was off and a lot of other musical events took place there; often of dubious quality. Poncet later told the interviewer of Musica that he was asked to sing the sound track of Lanza’s movie “Serenade”; a proposal he countered with “If Lanza accepted to make the movie he should sing himself the musical numbers. “ This apocryphal story too found its place in his daughter’s biography but there is not a hint of truth in it. Lanza was perfectly able to sing the 14 musical numbers of the movie and the many biographers who researched the tenor’s connection with Warner Brothers (the producing firm) have not turned up the slightest reference to the Basque tenor.
poncet11 (Marseille, 1966)

In June 1956 he returned disillusioned to France but succeeded in having an audition before Georges Hirsch, the general manager of the two Paris Opera Theatres. Hirsch realized Poncet’s potential and made him improve his musical and scenic abilities. He understood the problems of Poncet’s height and decided that lack of centimetres can be an asset when singing Canio, a poor clown and a cuckolded husband. In January 1957 Poncet made his début at the Opéra-Comique and scored a triumph. A serious critic like Roland Mancini tells us that one of the two most intense ovations he ever heard at a début at the theatre belongs to the tenor (Robert Massard got the other one in Il Barbiere). Then Poncet made his début at the Opéra itself in the one aria-role of Der Rosenkavalier (Le Chevalier à la Rose in reality); an opera where it is plausible that the Marschallin has all kind of strange looking servants and so a very small tenor can fit easily in. Poncet was more than ably partnered by some of France’s best singers like Andrea Guiot, Gabriel Bacquier, Jean Borthayre at the Comique and Crespin at the Opéra. During one performance Poncet’s Beppe was Alain Vanzo. From 1958 on he no longer had to look for performances as theatres realized his talents and his fast growing popularity due to his first recordings. Philips France recorded him at the end of 1957 in a long French selection of Lehar’s Das Land des Lächelns together with soprano Renée Doria (wife of the record’s producer Guy Dumazert). The operetta always was a hit in France and all important tenors and high baritones recorded it (Luccioni, Vanzo, Botiaux, Dens etc). The recording was a huge success. True, Poncet and Doria tackle the score as if written by Meyerbeer. Their duets more resemble the 4th act duet of Les Huguenots than Lehar’s score and Poncet sings “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz (Je t’ai donné mon coeur”) as a sequel to Arnold’s “Asile héréditaire”, capping it with a stunning high D. This is already vintage Poncet as we will get to know him in his subsequent recorded and some live performances. The voice sounds huge (and was huge). It is dark hued as Spanish tenor voices often are and the timbre is not conventionally beautiful. Some people will even think the timbre somewhat ugly as it is grainy timbered but those are the ones that will not like a voice as Pertile either. But Poncet doesn’t chop up his phrases; he has legato and can sing mezza-voce though piano is not his forte. Then the  voice loses most of its impact. And there is the glory of the magnificent top and Poncet is an unashamed top note hunter, though there is a tendency the voice comes out a little bit squeezed at the end of his tessitura. Anyway the record told French tenor buffs that at last here was a successor of Affre, Granal, Verdières, Luccioni and Vezzani. Incidentally Mrs. Poncé doesn’t mention that the LP was transferred unto CD in 1993. Philips would soon cash in on the tenor’s growing reputation by having him record a 45 EP-record with arias of Rigoletto, Aida, Trovatore and La Juive in French and followed suit with his most famous recital: Sérénades (as it was later called though not on the original sleeve). We get the same qualities and some would say negatives as in his Lehar record. Once more he employs his mighty sound to rather delicate melodies as the serenade of Schubert or Toselli though he never shouts. In “Ay, ay, ay” he proves he has listened carefully to Fleta’s same version though he realizes he cannot compete with the elder tenor’s morendi and therefore prefers a fully sung out top note. But in Eric Coates “Birdsong at evening tide” he proves he can shade his sound. All in all a testimony to his vocal prowess. Invitations now started coming in. Georges Hirsch understood that the traditional public had no problems with Poncet’s height. They were well happy with the voice and took in his limited physical appeal as part of the deal. Therefore Poncet next to some Pagliacci performances sang his first Rodolfo at the Opéra-Comique while Toulon heard his first Don José. Always generous to a fault he helped Toulon out on the 21th of December 1958 when their announced tenor fell ill. He sang Canio at the matinee and in the evening he appeared as Rodolfo.

With only five roles under his belt Poncet was still able to have a full time career for more than a year. I’m not sure what his next new role was. Was it one of the three roles in grand opéra upon which will rest his fame for ever ? (La Juive, Guillaume Tell, Les Huguenots). Mrs. Poncé offers a long chronology but still an incomplete one while she mentions some performances he clearly did not sing. E.g.  performances at Ghent of L’ Africaine and Il Trovatore that are not to be found in Guy Verriest’s meticulously researched “Het lyrisch toneel te Gent 1965 – 1980”. He even makes a special note on Poncet’s last performance. One doesn’t need to know Dutch to read the Ghent cast lists but the book is not in the bibliography in Mrs. Poncé’s book. It is somewhat strange too she doesn’t mention the Claude Ribou in her book. Mr. Ribou called himself Tony Poncet’s biggest fan and he was very generous in sharing copies of his many live recordings and he produced an extremely interesting CD-rom that includes a full chronology, lots of interesting photo’s, articles, discography and sound bits like the radio broadcast of the Cannes competition. Ribou mentions Poncet assuming the role of Eléazar in La Juive in Bordeaux for the first time in February 1960 while the tenor’s daughter tells us he made his début in the role two years later at Aix, date on which Mr. Ribou tells us Poncet sang his usual Turiddu and Canio at the same theatre. Strangely enough, neither Ribou or Poncé are able to give us the names of the other singers in their La Juive cast. Both however agree that the tenor made his début in the heavy and difficult role of Arnold in Guillaume Tell in October 1960, a role he would almost sing 80 times.  Interesting too are the two radio concerts devoted to Les Huguenots, an opera Poncet would later often perform. The sound is perfect and so is soprano Suzanne Sarrocca, far better here than on her commercial recordings. Poncet’s voice is thrilling but there are some weaknesses as well. His treatment of recitatives is not always agreeable. He often snarls and sounds somewhat nasal and the difference between a big voiced provincial singer and a singer of genius (Franco Corelli at the La Scala Huguenots) is clear. 1960 is a good year for Poncet recordings. There are two EP’s with Christmas songs though strangely enough all numbers are the same; only the accompaniment is different. As I have heard only one of them I cannot judge if they are not simply the same recording with a different organ as multi-track recording was already widely used. Poncet is one of the last tenors to honour an old tradition: a recording of some well-known patriotic songs. They are sung with spirit and lots of volume though not with George Thill’s style and even more ardour (but Thill recorded just before the German attack in May 1940). One EP I have never succeeded in hearing is a recording of 4 “Mélodies Espagnoles”, including a “Te quiero” (probably from El trust de los tenorios) and Adios Granada. This is the most rare of Poncet’s recordings and even  Claude Ribou didn’t have it. There is also a new MP with 8 arias which is the first of many recycling efforts by Philips. Four arias already appeared in 1958 and it is well possible the four new arias (two from L’ Africaine and two from La Juive) were recorded at the same time. In 1960 too appeared the first of the ten LP’s devoted to selections of French operas or operas in French translation; a formula which was very popular at the time and which give us Vanzo, Lance, Botiaux and Chauvet too in recordings when they were at the height of their powers. But this first Poncet recording is a bit of a hoax. Though it is called Pagliacci it is clear Poncet never saw one of the other soloists. He just recorded his arias without a chorus and there is no ensemble in “Un grande spettacolo” nor is there another voice to be heard in “No, Pagliaccio non son.” Maybe this recording on the cheap was done to test the waters for later Poncet-issues.
poncet13 (Les Huguenots)

1961 is maybe the most busy year of his career. For the first time he verged outside France though at Liège (the biggest city of French speaking Wallonia) he immediately felt at home. He made his début at the Flemish coast in a concert in Oostende. He even left Europe as he sang in the French Carribean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe where he offered a début to the French overseas : his first Duca, a lyric role for which his stentorian voice and the lack of sweetness in the timbre were not very apt.  One notices too several performances in Algeria in the last years of French colonial rule before the light went out and Western civilisation disappeared. At the intimate almost cosy theatre of Verviers in Wallonia (60.000 inhabitants only) Poncet sang his first Raoul on any scene. The same year there appeared a selection of Guillaume Tell on record which was very well received; even in The Gramophone by that discerning critic Philip Hope-Wallace. The tenor is here on his best behaviour, producing fine and powerful burnished sound and capping his big aria and cabaletta with a sprinkling of high C’s. The fly in the ointment is the very wooden and inelegant Mathilde of Irène Jaumillot. As at that time there was nothing else available of Tell in French this record was very welcome. There appeared too a French Puccini record by Poncet and Jaumillot. The lady is somewhat slightly better in Puccini than in Rossini. Poncet succeeds in taming his mighty roar and he sings with good legato, no sobs and fine phrasing. But the colour of the voice is not really suited to Rodolfo, Pinkerton or even Cavaradossi. It lacks the necessary sensuousness for Rodolfo or the duet from Madama Butterfly. There are too many souvenirs of fine sweet voiced Italian or even contemporary French tenors (especially Vanzo) with whom he simply cannot compete in this kind of repertoire. Moreover he is handicapped by some awful French translations like in “Nessun dorma”. By 1962 his career was settled: a number of performances at the Opéra-Comique in roles which suited him; a return to Opéra Garnier in a role for which his voice was not suited (Rigoletto) and then the French provinces or Wallonia. Probably to coincide with his Opéra performance there appeared a French selection of Rigoletto; not a record to treasure; not even for fans as “Parmi veder le lagrime” was not recorded.
poncet14 (Rigoletto, Toulon) poncet15
Far better is the voice in a selection of Aida; a role for which Mrs. Jaumillot can hold her own. Still the record once again (like in Pagliacci) proves the disdain of the producers for the music. The dance of the “petites esclaves “ and the trumpets of the triumphal march are included but there are barbaric cuts in the Aida-Radamès duet with the whole “Abandonar la patria”-section thrown out, the last half of the “L”aboritta rival” wiped out and only the “O terra addio”-section without the “La fatal pietra”-part. These methods were used by cheap labels at the start of the LP-age but were already unacceptable in the early sixties. In 1963 Poncet added two roles to his repertoire: Jean in Hérodiade and Manrico in Il Trovatore. Twice he makes his role début in Wallonia (Liège and Verviers) and not in France. He makes his first outing outside the French speaking world with a few Carmens in Cluj (Klausenburg) and Bucarest. Keep in mind that Rumania is a Roman language country and that it was the only country in the East Block where Russian was not the first foreign language. French was. As usual there appeared two French selections: the best is Carmen with a fine Elise Kahn. Only the second half of “Parle-moi de ma mere”-duet is available but there are no stupid cuts in the rest of the selection. Poncet sings utterly convincing and with a good sense of style. For Faust Poncet’s voice is too brassy, has too little charm though his “Salut demeure chaste et pure” proves how he has matured as a singer. He is one of the few tenors being able to show off a real messa di voce on the high C. But once more Mrs. Jaumillot is woodenness personified and in a selection of Faust produced mainly for Poncet it is unacceptable that only the very last part of the love duet was included.

A pity Mrs. Poncé gives rather scarce information on the evolution of Poncet’s career. When reconstructing it she must have noted how soon it went downhill. In July 1963 he sang for the last time at the Opéra (Rigoletto) and in November 1964 he performed Pagliacci at the Opéra-Comique and there too it was over. What did happen ? We don’t know. His daughter only mentions the bureaucratic mentality of the Parisian theatres. A rather easy argument. More convincing is her interpretation that Paris didn’t like to perform operas best suited to  Poncet’s voice as they were deemed old-fashioned and they probably thought him more and more unsuited for the rest of the repertoire as the voice and figure didn’t match the romantic roles. Paris’ loss was other theatres luck. It is obvious that provincial theatres like Dijon, Aix, Verviers, Toulouse, Liège, Lille etc. etc. mounted Tell, Juive  and Huguenots only because Poncet was available. After Oostende he conquered another Flemish city when he made his début in Ghent where at the time there still was a small vociferous minority who thought themselves to be superior beings as they spoke a kind of funny French instead of Dutch (it has now disappeared but knowledge of French operas too has now gone in Flanders). Poncet scored a triumph in Ghent (Gent in Dutch) and for almost twenty-five years the live recording of his La Juive was the only possibility of hearing (a heavily cut) version of Halévy’s work. True, the same year a commercial recording with Poncet appeared of highlights only on Philips but the rest of the cast is very weak, especially Jane Rhodes as Rachel. The same can be said of the selection of Contes d’Hoffmann. There are nowadays (still incomplete) recordings of the opera with Carreras and  Shicoff, recorded in perfect sound and with individual singers surpassing their Ghent colleagues in beauty of sound, but none of the commercial recordings can compete with the Ghent performance in drive, knowledge, French pronunciation and surefootedness in grand opera. In 1964 too there appeared the usual two selections: one of Un Ballo in Maschera; an opera that was never in Poncet’s repertoire and one of Il Trovatore. These records originally appeared on DG. In Ballo Poncet’s contribution is limited to the barcarolle in the first act and the big love duet of the second act and he proves that Verdi-phrasing is not his strong point. In both recordings Michèle LeBris is not much of an improvement over Mrs. Jaumillot though she is better in Trovatore than in Ballo (where only Ernest Blanc proves what a good baritone he was). The Ballo selection is highly idiosyncratic but for once there are no cuts in what is recorded, probably due to conductor Giuseppe Patané who doesn’t allow this hanky panky with the score. In Trovatore there is a French conductor and there we go again: half the first aria of Leonore; half her cabaletta, half the trio etc. A pity as Poncet is in excellent voice and has a good grasp on the score which is in his repertoire.
poncet17 (Manrico) poncet18 (Tell)

In 1965 Poncet continued a career in the French provinces with a steady diet of Guillaume Tell, Trovatore, Aida, La Juive, Pagliacci, Carmen, Cavalleria and Hérodiade. That year he added another grand opéra to his list: L’ Africaine but his assumption tempted few theatres to mount this difficult opera. This was the year I would first see and hear the tenor.
At the time opera communication was scarce and expensive. There were the British Opera Magazine and Opera News in the US (almost unknown at the time in Europe) and a few publications in French, that never passed the borders of the country. Therefore, being only 21 at the time, I still had the reflex to take for granted that every artist who made a lot of recordings was a major singer, singing at the major theatres. That was definitely not true for Poncet but little did I know. I often listened to Walloon radio and there his voice could almost weekly be heard in opera and belcanto-broadcasts. Due to our small car it had become possible to drive to Ghent an hear for ourselves what the fuzz was about. In the first part of this article I already mentioned our utter amazement when we saw the tenor in the flesh. Still, the moment he opened his mouth there was the well known big sound. His partner Flemish soprano Jacqueline van Quaille told me that the Ghent manager had asked her to study her part thoroughly as she was to sing with such a great name. She duly did and at rehearsal she launched together with Poncet into a difficult part of the duet and the tenor stopped and asked: “What are you doing Miss van Quaille ? This part I sing solo. “ Van Quaille looked at her score, protested a moment, looked at conductor Ledent who was intensely studying the paintings on the ceiling and understood she was singing with a star and therefore had to know her place. Poncet was not much of an actor but how could he be with his height in such heroic roles. He wore a pair of very high heels that however didn’t much improve the situation and one of his not very nice nicknames was “Puss in boots”. He unashamedly milked the audience with applause and he convinced me that opera as I knew it from a few books and old articles was still alive. On this first performance as an adult (I had seen a lot of operettas and a few operas as a child but then for 5 years had not visited a theatre) I got three misunderstandings. The first one was that this production of Guillaume Tell resembled the struggle between the Swiss and their Habsburg rulers while nowadays everybody knows that Tell tells us of the war between Jews and Arabs, Afghans and Americans - you name it-  as long as the antagonists are not Swiss and Austrians. The second misunderstanding I got was that voices in the theatre sound exactly like their recordings (courtesy of Tony Poncet) and the third one was that a brilliant execution would result in an encore. Well, we got one and in almost fifty years of theatre visiting Poncet’s bis was the first and the last I ever got in an opera house (I got a lot in Verona by Bergonzi, Cappuccilli, Domingo etc. and Corelli twice provoked an outrage when he didn’t encore but the arena is not a real opera theatre). In the last act Poncet set his foot on the proscenium, looked around and quietly started quietly recitative. Then he almost whispered: “Devant le seuil malgré moi je m’arrête ». Then louder «  mon père est mort » and at « mort » he opened up and the voice shook the rafters. Then he launched into “Asile héréditaire”  almost duplicating his well known recording. At the end the house simply came down, Poncet acknowledged the applause for a minute, gave a sign to the conductor and we got an encore of one of the most exposed arias in the repertoire. Once more delirium and the tenor went teeth and claws for the cabaletta but refused to encore “Amis, secondez ma vaillance”. By the finale of the opera he still had voice to spare and he launched a blazing high C on “liberté”, clearly audible over complete chorus, orchestra and all the other soloists. It still remains an unforgettable experience after so many years. Incidentally the name of the lady who sang Jemmy is not Pauxells as Mrs. Poncé writes but (Erika) Pauwels. The same year appeared the last operatic selection Poncet ever recorded: L’ Africaine; better cast than usual and unbelievably still the only commercial record of the operas (all known versions are live ones though they are complete performances and not highlights). The same can be said as of La Juive. Domingo, Arroyo, Stella, Milnes etc. all have the better voices but none of them  has the real French style in their bones. That same year appeared a “new” recital “Airs célèbres d’opéras français” which in reality had only two new arias on it (Werther – Sigurd), all the rest being culled from already recorded selections. Probably there was some recording time left at the sessions of L’Africaine. Next year there was a really new recital “De l’opérette à l’ opera” and one cannot say it is impressive. All are arias for lyric tenor and sweetness of timbre, charm and lyrical outpouring are not Poncet’s forte. Too many fine tenors have recorded these arias and comparison is never in favour of Poncet. He is far better and sounds his usual self in the album “Tony Poncet chante en français les airs célèbres d’opéras”. Though some of these are from earlier records too others are new like the La Favorite arias. This is Poncet’s last commercial recording and Mrs. Poncé doesn’t give us a reason why Philips did no longer continue with the tenor. Why for instance was there never a selection from Les Huguenots ? Selections of La Bohème and Cavalleria Rusticana were announced but never appeared. Opera in French translation more and more became obsolete until it disappeared completely in 1972 in Paris. And as living standards were rising  the public had money enough to buy complete sets which became cheaper. Can it be too that Poncet’s last records were less than a commercial success. We don’t know.
poncet19 (As Raoul)

Of course there can be another reason. Poncet’s voice was slowly changing. I had an inclination when I heard him in Ghent in Les Huguenots in 1966. The weight of the voice was somewhat more slender; the top notes still very secure but a bit less voluminous and the snarl was more obtrusive. I last heard him in January 1968 in a role which he had first sung a few months before in Toulouse: Fernand in the original French version of La Favorite. This time the volume had definitely diminished and the top notes were more squeezed. From now on recordings of live performances are often available and one notes indeed the slow deterioration. By 1969 one remarks far less performances than usual with one rather (in)famous occasion: a concert performance at Carnegie Hall of Les Huguenots, known for the hysterical outbursts of applause by the fans of Beverly Sills. Americans were not impressed by Poncet. They knew too well such glamorous ladykillers as Corelli, Thomas, young Domingo, Gedda. Poncet didn’t help things by being dressed in a ridiculous orange coat. Some reviewers were polite: “Brass and only brass” could be read in Opera Magazine; others were rude: “the guy is awful (Ed Rosen)”. 1970 was his last real operatic year with a few performances in France, Flanders (Hérodiade in Ghent) and Wallonia. His last performance on scene in his own country was Pagliacci in Marseilles in April 1970. At the end of the year there were a few performances in Les Antilles (French Caribbean) and a last Canio in Ankara (Turkey). From 1971 on only one concert performance of Huguenots and a few concerts appear in his chronology. The career petered out with 5 or 6 concerts a year till he finally took a farewell in Liège on 13th of December 1977. By that time the voice had become downright ugly. In the meantime he had married Anne Marie Daviaud in August 1969 and for a time had a restaurant together with a brother in Paris. The Poncets had one daughter and he gave her the name of the heroine of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. The family returned to the Basque country. After a long illness Poncet died on the 13th November of 1979, not yet sixty-one. His daughter only speaks of cancer without giving details but I suppose one particular habit was responsible. Freddy Verschaffel of Ghent who often sang in the chorus remembers Poncet as a chain smoker of heavy self produced cigarettes. The tenor often coughed up green slimes before going on the scene.  
poncet20  poncet21 poncet21

Poncet’s heritage is secure but slim. Only Le Pays du Sourire and Guillaume Tell (with the overture culled from another recording) are to be found on CD. All the other 8 selections were never transferred . It is understandable as a modern public doesn’t accept the savage cuts on most of the records any more (unless someone would listen to the master tapes   - do they still exist ?) Maybe the arias and duets were recorded complete and the cuts are a decision of the producer. Anyway, it would still be possible to put Poncet’s contributions on CD as he still has quite a following. His recital records too didn’t fare well. His first famous recital is only to be found partly on a 2 CD album together with the largely unsuccessful “de l’opéra à l’opérette”. His far better other albums are still waiting for a transfer. His fans therefore take resource to exchanging CD-R’s. There is a lot of live material available but almost always from the second half of the sixties or else in less than fine sound. None of the concerts of the early sixties have turned up though tape recorders ware already common in those days. Live recordings of Hérodiade and L’Africaine too have yet to appear. Poncet’s appeal doesn’t rest on his Don José or his French Riccardo but firmly stands on the huge voice he displays in Les Huguenots, L’Africaine, Guillaume Tell and La Juive. Vezzani clearly had the better and more pure style and Luccioni the more sensuous sound and more metal but it was Poncet who kept those operas in the repertoire at a time when so called serious critics and managers thought them old thrash. Lucky for us in the eighties some singers realized what a gap of operatic history was disappearing (and what possibilities for success) and though not common a lot of revivals have proven these operas to be a treasure trove. But none of the tenors after Poncet (surely not in France) were able to step into his vocal shoes as most of them were spinto’s at their best. Tony Poncet was indeed the last ‘fort-ténor’.

Jan Neckers