Saturday, July 11, 2015

Jon Vickers

Jon Vickers, Canadian heldentenor, has died at 88, "after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease," according to the announcement at the Royal Opera House web site.

Vickers was a famed Otello, Tristan, Grimes, Siegmund, and Enée, and sang an extremely wide and unusual repertory that extended as far back as Nerone in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea and included Laca in Jenufa at a time when Janacek was not seen that often outside central Europe. He was a singer of great concentration and intensity; thoughtful, analytical, and not at all interested in fame, just in his art.

I never saw Vickers live, though he sang until 1988 and certainly there must have been performances of his that I could have seen. On record, some of his vocal tics stand out in ways that make it hard for me to connect with his singing; I also don't know some of his great assumptions, such as Grimes.

But right now he's been very much in my thoughts, as one of the singers who was in the forefront of the revival of Les Troyens. Vickers sang Enée at the Covent Garden performances led by Rafael Kubelik and Colin Davis, which brought Troyens into the public eye and made clear that it's a masterpiece, after so many years of being regarded as a failure.

RIP, Jon Vickers.


Henry Holland said...

I've waxed and waned on Mr. Vickers singing. Benjamin Britten was my entry in to opera, his recording with Peter Pears of Peter Grimes was the first opera recording I bought. I bought the Vickers version from the ROH on VHS months later and I didn't like his performance at all. Way too mannered for me plus he played Grimes as a brutal psychotic from the get-go. He and Britten couldn't stand each other (Britten walked out of the recording sessions for the Vickers/Davis Grimes), Britten especially didn't like that Vickers changed some of the text.

It wasn't until I heard the Les Troyens recording years later that I "got it". I love his Don Jose, Siegmund, Parsifal (heard on a crap sounding pirate recording) and most of all his Tristan in the 1973 Orange, France production with Birgit Nilsson. A friend lent me his videotape of that performance and I must have watched the whole thing four or five times.

Jon Vickers had the ideal voice for Paul in Die Tote Stadt but that never happened, of course.

RIP Mr. Vickers.

Anonymous said...

From various things that have been said about him in recent years, or rather not said, I had guessed that he must have Alzheimers, but it's still so sad to learn of it officially. What a cruel disease, the cruelest really. And a brilliant mind is no protection, witness Iris Murdoch, for example (or my graduate school adviser, Professor Nathan Jacobson, RIP).

I admit to just worshiping Vickers, and though I saw him several times, it was never enough. The power of that distinctive voice (not easily captured by microphones) and his evident identification with conflicted, suffering souls gave his Siegmund, Floristan, Otello, Aeneas unique psychological depth. Some people have found his singing mannered or artificial (possibly including you, Lisa), but I always took that as part of his personal musicality (a feature, not a bug) -- and in any event it varied over the course of his career. In later years, say in the '80s, that huge voice became somewhat unwieldy, and I think he used a certain amount of scooping and sliding and weird register blends to keep it under control.

If you want to check out a few things that have thrilled me, listen on Davis I to the last half of Act 3 of Les Troyens, from the point where Narbal runs in with the news that the Numidians are attacking. The big Vickers thrills are the whole of his farewell to his son, and his entrance line "Reine, je suis Enée". The power with which he sings that downward E-major arpeggio in the middle of the voice proclaims a hero, and as wonderful as Bryan Hymel is, the high placement of his voice prevents him from making that kind of effect (he has said in interviews how difficult that passage is for him). How Vickers can handle the overall high tessitura and still do that is almost unbelievable.

Or you could listen to him sing "Gott!" in Fidelio (any number of sources).

Or you could listen to the end of Walküre Act I. Someone on Parterre posted this amazing thing, which I had never heard before:

Just for the record: I saw him in Troyens (Met 1973), Walküre twice (Met in 1965, SF Opera in 1976, both times with Rysanek), Peter Grimes three times (Met in 1983, twice at the LA Olympics in 1984), a concert Fidelio with the LA Phil under Mehta (with Gundula Janowitz, whose light, silvery voice represented a serious act of vocal miscasting -- but Gott! welch' dunkel hier), a concert Parsifal Act II at the Hollywood Bowl (with Troyanos, I think in 1981), and that odd English language Bartered Bride at the Met (as a stuttering, shy Vašek, with Gedda as Jeník and Stratas as Mařenka -- telecast and probably findable on video).

His Otello I only saw in an early Met telecast from 1978, with Scotto. It's a famous performance -- available on DVD, I think.

Also, there was Das Lied von der Erde in the mid '80s at the LA Phil under Giulini, with Troyanos. This was pretty late in the game, and sadly he could just barely get through it. That was during a period when KUSC played the complete Phil season, and Giulini refused to allow this one to be broadcast. Too bad in a way, because Troyanos was great. But he did not retire too soon.

Many people deserve credit for finally putting Les Troyens on the map, most of all probably Colin Davis and Hugh Macdonald (editor of the New Berlioz Edition). But I also think that until someone came along who could actually sing Enée properly, audiences were not going to understand the character of the piece. Vickers was the first, the man who -- I was going to say who kissed and awakened the sleeping princess, but maybe it would be better to say who went down to Hades and sang a dead opera back to life.

Lisa Hirsch said...

My issue with Vickers is not (I think) about a mannered or affected style - it's a really odd issue, in fact. His "eee" sounds often close up in a way that makes his vocal production, the sound coming out of his mouth, change radically and unpleasantly.

I do mostly like him on Davis I, and I will listen to that chunk of Act III. I've got the Met Otello and remember not liking it that much; I started a never-finished blog posting that was supposed to include a review of that, a review of the 2009 SF Opera production (with Botha), and a look at my personal Otello problems. I find the opera itself problematic in some ways, despite so much of the music being so great, but more to the point, my first tenor obsession was Giovanni Martinelli, and I love him above all other Otellos. (Otelli?)

I have the Klemperer Fidelio, will check out that Walkuere excerpt. I think I must have a Parsifal - no, wait, I don't, it's Jess Thomas on the famous 1962 Kna recording. I do need to become familiar with his Grimes and that of Pears; I only really "got" the opera after last year's magnificent semi-staged performance at SFS, with Stuart Skelton (who was fantastic).

I would like to give some of the Troyens credit to Kubelik, who conducted the opera in the UK and Italy and elsewhere in the decade before the new edition became available. (And also to Beecham, who wanted to conduct it starting in 1910 (!!) but did not get to it until the late 40s.) I agree with you about a singer who could handle Enee, and must admit that I have been daydreaming about what might have been possible at the Met in the 1920s. Maybe it would have had to be I Troiani, maybe it would have been Les Troyens, but Martinelli, Ponselle, Pinza, one of their great mezzos for Didon, etc.

Russell said...

Henry - what's your source for Britten walking out of the David/Vickers Grimes recording sessions? I ask because no biography of him I've read makes any mention of this; I always presumed the recording was made after his death, since it came out in 1978.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Rob, I listened to the second half of Act III, and yes, it is astonishing that Vickers had both the upper extension to make the high notes sound shockingly easy (and brilliant) and the middle range to make "Je suis Enee" so powerful.

Henry Holland said...

Russell, I didn't do my usual thing of Googling stuff (or in the case of Britten, going to the piles of books I have on him and his works) to double-check facts, I got two separate incidents mixed up. Britten walked out of the 1975 production of Peter Grimes at the ROH that starred Vickers. You're right, the audio-only version was recorded after Britten died in 1976, April 1978 per the CD version I have. Here's a good summary of what Britten thought about Vickers performance, edited by me for brevity:


The casting of Heppner - a rising star of the Wagnerian repertory - in the Peter Pears part inevitably prompts memories of Britten's hostile reaction to the performance of another Canadian tenor, Jon Vickers, in Elijah Moshinsky's famously 'post-Brechtian' Covent Garden production of 1975. He could not have been further removed from the strangulated, nasal drawl into which the once liquid-voiced Pears had by then descended. Britten was so outraged by Vickers' performance that he stormed out.

The British tenor Robert Tear, who shared the title role with Vickers during the 1978 Covent Garden revival, has some sympathy with Britten's reaction. 'With Vickers,' he notes, 'you got a dying hero, a Tristan, rather than a visionary, Blakeian poet'.

Robert Tear was incredible as Captain Vere in the Billy Budd production done here in Los Angeles, very Pears-like. Britten also walked out on the world premiere of Birtwistle's Punch and Judy, which was at the 1968 Aldeburgh Festival, Vickers was in good company! :-)