We should all age as gracefully as Charles Aznavour. At 74, the legendary French-Armenian singer and songwriter, who is performing a limited engagement (through Nov. 15) at the Marquis Theater, has a voice that, if anything, has gained in strength and emotive authority over the decades. Trim and dapper in a black suit, his white hair cut short, Mr. Aznavour exudes the electricity of a veteran pugilist with the soul of a mime. That voice, combined with body language, allows him to convey the emotional core of a song with a directness and clarity that transcend language.
Mr. Aznavour's art, so unlike that of most American popular singers, is one of containment. No other entertainer demonstrates more forcefully the power of stillness. The small, telling gesture, be it a ruffled vocal inflection, a hurried phrase, the flutter of a hand or a toss of the head, conveys a palpable voltage. Completing the chemistry is the texture of his voice, a vaguely cantorial tenor with a Middle Eastern rasp -- and a pulsing vibrato that implies a volatile temper under control.
Mr. Aznavour is more than anything a Gallic everyman. Most of his songs are about confronting life's joys and sorrows, especially the passage of time and the fading of youth, with an attitude of heroic stoicism.
The difference between Mr. Aznavour's performance of his most famous song, ''Yesterday When I Was Young,'' and Lena Horne's equally memorable rendition, speaks volumes about American popular song traditions versus the French chanson. Where Mr. Aznavour's version ends on a note of sad resignation, Ms. Horne's offers no hope, only endless bitterness.
In the directness with which they confront life's problems, Mr. Aznavour's ballads are comparable to American country songs, although their musical vocabulary is very different. His melodies ride on basic chromatic harmonies that belong to an unabashedly sentimental European tradition. As lushly as the songs are arranged (the singer is backed by about 20 musicians), they tend to have a cookie-cutter quality, with the melodies serving as mood-setting launching pads for Mr. Aznavour's monologues.
Those monologues range from the harrowing (''Je Bois,'' or ''I Drink''), to the mawkish (a man in love with a deaf-mute woman ). But even in the songs that go emotionally overboard, he finds a kernel of truth. The Aznavour songbook is a collection of fables that locate our common humanity in l'amour, which in French popular culture is more than just a part of life; it often seems to be the only thing that matters.
More than 30 years after his first Broadway stand, which opened in October 1965, French singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour has returned for a limited engagement at the Marquis, displaying the same suave showmanship and sensitive vocal style that long ago catapulted him into the category of living legend. In 1965, Variety described Aznavour as "a short, lean, lithe, dynamic man with thinning dark hair ... and the bright-eyed alertness and tension of a fox terrier." The thinning hair has turned to silver, and the tension is now tempered by a gentle resignation, but the 74-year-old Aznavour remains a vivid, spry and engaging performer, and his vocal resources are, astonishingly, scarcely diminished.
Aznavour, who has written hundreds of tunes in a songwriting career spanning 50 years, is performing a generous selection -- almost 30 -- in the current concert, about half in French and half in English translation, with a pair in Spanish thrown in to mix things up.
He's a specialist in chansons realistes, clear-eyed looks at love and loss that are tinged with a uniquely Gallic form of rue, and he performs with a distinctive blend of quiet, almost introverted intensity and Jolson-style theatrics. An actor with a long film career behind him, Aznavour pins dramatic little vignettes to the end of many of his songs, ending "What Makes a Man," for example, with a brief evocation of its drag-queen subject. In "Mon Emouvant Amour," the love of a man for his mute girlfriend miraculously skirts bathos. For "And I in My Chair," Aznavour enacts the delicate interplay between a young couple and the older man who observes them with sad sympathy.
The fleeting nature of romance and youth are his songs' primary themes, and it's surprising how much melodic and rhythmic variety he draws from them. "Je Bois" is a rolling, excoriating anthem to imbibing in which a man raises his glass to all his miseries, past, present and future. In "Sa Jeunesse," the singer again has drinking on the mind, in this cast vowing to drink in his lover's youth to the point of inebriation.
In Aznavour's regret-infused world -- perhaps best exemplified by his famous "Yesterday, When I Was Young," movingly rendered here -- summer is forever suddenly running away, and winter's always here to stay, and romance turns almost instantly to illusion before being swallowed by memory. It's the flip side of the American song standard, which presents a far sunnier view of love's horizons.
Accompanied by a small band supplemented by a 10-strong string section and a pair of breathy backup singers, Aznavour varied song tempos, with a boppy '50s song, a gypsy tune and some Vegas flavor jazzing up the evening's many quieter laments. His voice can still throb with energy when a high-energy finale is needed, but it's on the many more subdued tunes that Aznavour is most captivating, as he wanders between speech and song as if down a darkened, rain-slick Paris street, trailing cigarette smoke and regret.