A diminutive giant defies the years – and security – to wow Sofia’s audiences
Some performers manage to take song to a higher level so that listening to them envelops you in nostalgia. You are somehow wafted away on a journey. Perhaps the key to understanding the extraordinary charisma of legends like Sinatra is that you felt he was singing to you personally. These are the entertainers who render people misty-eyed and emotional.
Sadly, I never got the chance to view Sinatra on stage. But on November 30 at the Arena Armeets I was privileged to witness a performer of similar range and power. For Charles Aznavour, at 93 years young, to still be giving live concerts, is cause for remarkable celebration in itself. But for him to be so commanding – that he makes you completely forget his age and any possible infirmity associated with it – is an extraordinary achievement.
In the Seventies I remember watching a British chat show in which Aznavour declared his intention to live to be very old. Admirably as good as his word, Aznavour – seven years from hitting his century – is still impressing fans on his world tour. A slight tremor notwithstanding and, as he cheerfully admitted to the audience, a reliance on prompter screens, he’s as great as ever.
Aznavour chose to speak in French to the audience, telling them he could, of course, speak in English but he felt more comfortable in his own language. And apart from his show-stopping hit – She – all of his songs were indeed in French.
One of Aznavour’s most haunting songs, which he wrote in 1972, is What Makes a Man. The master delivered the French version (Comme Ils Disent), a desolate tale of a tormented gay man cooped up with his mother in a high-rise, bickering over the chores, raging against the indignity of performing in a dubious nightclub and fretting over unrequited love – the love that can never be.
Like Sinatra he sucks you into the story with illuminating gestures as if he’s giving you a personal pep talk. ‘Tell me if you can what makes a man a man‘, runs the song in English. Aznavour’s Sofia rendition was as exquisite as ever, balancing the flow of the lyrics with the meaning to perfection. A calibration so fine-tuned, with the precision of a tightrope walker. I’ve listened to other interpretations and they fall short. (Liza Minnelli’s was too emphatic and unbalances the rhythm. Marc Almond’s version lacked the required depth.)
A charming French rendition of another song he wrote, The Old Fashioned Way, (Les Plaisirs Démodés) followed in which Aznavour mimicked a couple dancing cheek to cheek so evocatively.
Hier Encore J’Avais 20 Ans – usually sung as Yesterday When I Was Young in English – is another all-time favourite and Aznavour succeeded in conveying the deeper meaning behind the song, the selfishness of youth giving way to regret and solitude.
Que C’est Triste Venise (How Sad Venice Can Be) had me wanting immediately to board a flight to the wintry glory of St Mark’s Square, so thrilling was Aznavour’s delivery. And he delivered La Boheme, another trademark hit, with a punch and vigour that many younger singers would envy.
The superstar delivered the goods for 90 minutes, sometimes taking recourse to a high stool but, I suspect, not out of necessity but just to preserve stamina. At one point, just after the climax to a song, and literally skipping around the stage like an ecstatic schoolboy, he appeared to stumble but I think this was just ‘mock’ fragility, jokingly stressing what he’d delivered for us.
At an age when many people have moved on to ‘the next great adventure’, or are hobbling unsteadily, Aznavour still commands the stage – wiry, dexterous and nimble. From a distance he could easily pass for a man 20 years younger.
I’d say the venue was 90 per cent full. At the end there was a bit of a commotion as an impassioned lady fan tried to deliver flowers. Were they forbidden for security reasons? In the end she was almost wrestling with a security guard in front of Aznavour. Eventually Aznavour leaned over and graciously accepted them, leading, of course, to several more bouquets being delivered.
Yes, the audience was predominantly ‘d’un certain age’ but such a concert shows that there is still a huge audience for Aznavour. I could have listened to him – and gazed at his cute suspenders – forever. Yes, again, I would have wished for a couple more songs, and a bit more banter, in English. My French is getting rusty! But I shan’t quibble over such an ethereal experience.
For Aznavour aficionados out there, I particularly recommend two other pieces: Like Roses, a powerful love song, and Happy Anniversary, an amusing account of a botched but ultimately happy wedding anniversary.
I hope Aznavour continues to tour. He is one of a kind. I’ll be there for his concert to mark his centenary.