By Lynn René Bayley
In the long history of opera, there has never been another tenor like Jon Vickers. Jonas Kaufmann might have followed in his footsteps, but he chose instead to be a pop tenor, singing standard repertoire Italian operas, Viennese operetta arias and Christmas songs, rather than continue to develop as a great artist.
Yet it was exactly this aspect of Vickers’ life and career, his refusal to become a popular tenor, that set him aside from his fellows. Singing for entertainment was something he avoided doing for most of his career, in part because he felt very strongly that his voice was a gift from God and thus it was his responsibility to do something different with it than the general run of tenors. And there was something more, his being drawn to characters who were flawed in one way or another or were ordinary men trapped by extraordinary circumstances. To these characters, and in the lieder and songs he chose to sing, he tried to present the human condition in an artistic manner. He did this by not only presenting the words he sang in a dramatic way but in a poetic way. This was the key to Vickers’ artistry; it is the least understood and appreciated aspect of it; and the transformation of a farm boy from Saskatchewan, Canada into the poet of dramatic tenors is still the most attractive and enigmatic aspect of his singing.
Those who have heard him, even on recordings, can get an idea of this because it was part and parcel of his makeup. But those of us who were lucky enough to have seen him in person know that he had what was probably the most immense tenor voice of all time. I don’t just mean that the voice was loud and powerful—many such tenors have trod the stage—but it so completely filled whatever space he was singing in, even a barn as big as the Metropolitan Opera—that we thought of it as a “Cinerama” voice. It was diffuse rather than focused. In addition, he was also the most magnetic of stage performers. Though not a big man—he stood only 5 feet 7 inches tall—he so completely dominated any stage he was on, even when he just stood there and wasn’t singing, that he could inadvertently unbalance a cast. This was one reason why he normally chose to present larger-than-life characters. When he played Don Alvaro in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at the Metropolitan Opera in 1975. for instance, he was heavily criticized by the press because they felt that he made Alvaro the central character of the opera when in fact attention should be equally divided between Alvaro and Leonora; but Vickers didn’t have a Maria Callas, Magda Olivero or Teresa Stratas to sing Leonore. He partnered Lucine Amara and Martina Arroyo, who were merely singers and lacked a strong stage presence.
And that was another aspect of Vickers that modern audiences, who are used to acting on the stage, have a hard time grasping: he was a pioneer in bringing a believable, flesh-and-blood character to the stage, along with very few others. Of his generation, you had only a handful of artists who could do the same, among them baritones Thomas Stewart and Gabriel Bacquier, and the latter almost never sang with him. Ironically, Bacquier was also in that 1975 Forza, but as Padre Guardiano, and he too dominated the stage and stole his scenes when he appeared…but it was a small role, and he never shared a scene with Vickers. Otherwise, back in those days, opera singers were just singers. You went to hear the voice, not a dramatic or poetic interpretation. As Vickers himself put it, “I know that I only appeal to about 10% of the average opera audience, but that’s OK. I do it for them.”
A big reason for his lack of universal appeal, aside from his avoidance of much of the standard tenor repertoire, was the quality of his voice. It lacked the ring or “squillo” of the average dramatic tenor. It was a warm, rich voice, albeit a VERY huge warm, rich voice, but in the upper range there was only a minimal tenor ring. He did possess more metal in the voice in his early years, but by 1965 it was pretty much gone. For this reason, he was not a frequent or welcome visitor in Italy, and fortunately he understood why.
This monograph is essentially a traversal of Vickers’ recorded legacy, both live and in the studio, and my assessment of how these recordings relate to the voice as heard “live.” I am doing this for the simple reason that the man is dead, and that there are not that many of us around today who heard him in person. I was lucky enough to hear him 2 ¼ times: once in a live Metropolitan Opera performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, once in a Carnegie Hall recital, and once over the Met’s internal sound system as he was rehearsing the Forza. That was the extent of my exposure to him, but it was enough to leave an indelible impression on me.
Like a few major singers before him, such as soprano Rosa Ponselle (whose voice was also rich and creamy and didn’t have much metal in it, though she possessed more than he did), Vickers was largely a natural talent. He has always loved to sing back on the farm and in church, and by the time he was in his late teens the voice had grown to immense proportions. The problem was how to tame it, how to extend the high range so that those notes came easily, and how to integrate the two halves of his voice. Unlike Ponselle, who had only a little coaching, Vickers went through several years of training with some very good teachers who insisted (and rightly so) that he work diligently on vocal exercises before they would let him sing an aria (which, in his backwoods Canadian accent, Vickers always called “an arry-a”). It frustrated him, but deep down he knew they were right and so he stuck with it. It also disappointed him, due to his impetuous nature, that his teachers had predicted that his voice wouldn’t be properly settled until he was “at least thirty,” but they were right about that, too.
At age 21, Vickers was eager to embark on some sort of career but since college scholarships were offered to vets returning from World War II first, he had nowhere to go. He took a job as traveling manager and troubleshooter for the F.W. Woolworth Company, going to stores in remote towns to make certain they were stocked properly and occasionally do the dirty work of firing a lazy r inadequate employee for the store manager. But Woolworth’s didn’t like his singing so much on the side at churches, weddings and funerals and told him to stop it. This made him eager to leave his job, and he did, switching to a position selling tools in the basement of a Hudson Bay Company store for $40 a week.
But young Vickers was lucky to have been noticed by James Robert Wood, an excellent baritone who made the budding tenor a soloist at the Knox United Church to which he belonged. He was also his first voice teacher, giving him free lessons. Vickers also sang with the Hudson Bay Company chorus at Christmas time, and this is probably what attracted the attention of Davidson Thomson, director of the Bay choir. Vickers then began taking voice lessons from Thomson. It was Thomson who insisted on Vickers just singing vocal exercises and not songs or arias. One contact led to another, and eventually he was brought to the attention of the Royal Academy of Music where he was accepted as a pupil, then to the attention of the powerful conductor Sir Ernest MacMillan. Throughout his life, doors kept opening up for Vickers at the right time. He attributed this to the fact that because his voice was a gift from God, he had a sacred trust to take care of it and do the best he could.
Thanks to the exposure he got from working with MacMillan, Vickers was hired by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) to appear in a number of televised opera productions in 1955 and 1956. It was here that he first performed a few roles he would either continue or revive later in his career, such as Canio in Pagliacci, Don José in Carmen and the title role in Andrea Chenier along with several he hated doing, such as Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Manrico in Il Trovatore. But when he objected he was told, “This is Canada, son. You have a contract with us and when he say you sing something, you sing it. That’s all.” Perhaps this was one reason (though there were others) why, after he achieved stardom, Vickers tended to pick and choose his own roles regardless of how small the opera company was. It was part of his nature as a maverick.
In a 1969 interview with critic John Amis, Vickers told how he was about to give up on the idea of a major career in 1956 and go back to his first job after he turned 21, as a traveling regional manager and troubleshooter for the F.W. Woolworth Company, when suddenly and unexpectedly “I received all these offers to sing” and “one door after another opened up for me.” Clearly the most important door to open for him was at Great Britain’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden when David Webster offered him a lucrative contract. Vickers made his Covent Garden debut in a conventional tenor role, that of Riccardo in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, but in that same year he sang his only performances as Walther in Die Meistersinger and his first performance as Énée in Berlioz’ Les Troyens, the latter becoming one of his signature roles. The latter was difficult for Vickers because it required sing high Cs and even a high D-flat, but by dint of hard work and concentration he was able to hit those notes, not only in 1957 but also in the late 1960s and early ‘70s when he reprised the role both on the stage and in the recording studio.
Yet the bigger he became, the less recording he was willing to do. In that same 1969 interview he told Amis that he hated recording and avoided it as much as possible. One reason was the bad experience he had with conductor Georg Solti in 1962 when he recorded Aida with Leontyne Price. Solti, wanting the orchestra to sound perfect, insisted on multiple retakes of arias and scenes involving Vickers which he felt were unnecessary. He resolved never to work with Solti ever again (though, ironically, he had worked with him previously at Covent Garden), one of several incidents for which he was branded “difficult.”
Thus there are huge gaps in Vickers’ recorded repertoire, and even with the aid of live recordings (many more during the 1970s and ‘80s than in the 1960s) some of his repertoire is gone forever. In 1965, for instance, he sang several performances as Gherman in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades opposite his old Royal Conservatory fellow-student, soprano Teresa Stratas (he reprised this role in 1967 with Felicia Weathers as Lisa). Fortunately for us, there is a “pirate” recording of him singing the role in the 1970s, up in Canada, with soprano Teresa Kubiak, but the sound quality is distant and not as clear as a Met broadcast would have been. Gone forever are his Erik in Der Fliegende Höllander (one performance on April 13, 1965, replacing an ailing Arturo Sergi) as well as his Laca in Janáček’s Jenufa from 1974 (several performances, most of them with Kubiak). Although he became famous for his Peter Grimes by the mid-1960s, he didn’t record it until 1978, and there are no studio recordings of his Samson in Handel’s opera (another of his signature roles), Riccardo in Ballo, the title role of Don Carlos and, of course, his Don Alvaro.
Yet, ironically, he recorded several works twice: two each of Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Bizet’s Carmen (if you include the 1967 Karajan film along with the 1970 studio recording), Verdi’s Otello and Wagner’s Die Walküre. He also recorded three Beethoven Ninth Symphonies, one each with Pierre Monteux, Lorin Maazel and Zubin Mehta. But of his many concert recitals with piano, only a few exist on CD and those from live performances. The only lieder he ever recorded in the studio was Schubert’s Winterreise in 1984.
Since this is the case, we have to make do with what we have. There is clearly enough to judge him on, however, and this is what we will examine in this monograph. Recordings and live performances for which I have provided illustrations (mostly album or DVD covers) are the ones I recommend most highly.
The Early Years
Sir Ernest MacMillan’s 1952 RCA Bluebird recording of Handel’s Messiah is the first thing we have to judge Vickers on, and it is valuable in that it catches his voice at an early stage before it settled. He had more vibrato back then and the tone is brighter, but not brighter in an Italianate way; it’s a kind of edgy brightness caused in part by placing the voice more in the nasal cavities than he would later do. I’m thinking that this is how his Conservatory voice teacher, George Lambert, got him to place the high range in order to equalize his registers. It was a good stopgap measure but clearly not the way he wanted to sing going forward. He also goes hoarse on one note in “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” but his phrasing is already quite mature. This did not really change over the years.
Next we have a few of the CBC telecasts: the complete Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci, a scene from Andrea Chenier and, at one time (no longer available online), a snippet of the Azucena-Manrico duet from Act IV of Il Trovatore. Here the voice is still somewhat bright, but the rapid vibrato has disappeared; he also seems to have been able to negotiate the high notes with greater ease and better integration into the voice. His acting style, though a little restrained, already shows a tenor who knows how to make his presence felt in every scene he is in. I’m thinking that someone must have reported some of this to David Webster in the U.K.
There is no further video footage of Vickers that I’ve been able to find from 1957 to about 1963, when he performed a scene from Act IV of Aida with Giulietta Simionato on the Bell Telephone Hour TV show, but there is plenty of audio: two clips from Meistersinger, the quintet and the scene in the last act in which he sings the “prize song”; complete performances (two of them) of Les Troyens from Covent Garden, plus a snippet of the love duet from that opera with mezzo Blanche Thebom; less than an hour’s worth of both Carmen and Aida, a complete Dream of Gerontius under Sir John Barbirolli, the 1958 Don Carlo, his Bayreuth debut as Siegmund in a Die Walküre under Knappertsbusch, the 1958 and 1959 performances of Cherubini’s Medea with Maria Callas, the 1959 live performance of Handel’s Samson, plus another live Walküre and live Fidelio from the Met in 1960. The live Don Carlo, the Samson, and the Met Walküre are, in my view, the best performances overall in terms of fellow singers and conducting, and we can glean a lot from these.
In each performance, Vickers is in superb voice; he has full control of his instrument and, with it, the means to project the kind of poetic interpretation for which he became famous. But as I said earlier, the majority of operagoers weren’t interested in poetry from a big-voiced tenor, though that’s what they got. The sensitive few “got” what he was doing and began to zone in. With his huge voice, Vickers could easily have just yelled all night long and thrilled the masses, but he chose to be an artist and not just a belter. Jeannie Williams, who wrote the biography Jon Vickers: A Hero’s Life, feels that these early portrayals only got better with age because, in her view, perfect voice production did not always allow him to bring the nuance to his roles that he later did. That is true in a couple of instances, which we will discuss in a moment, but to my way of thinking his Florestan and Siegmund, at least, never really changed over the years although in the former role it was perhaps more believable later on when his voice was craggier than in his early performances.
The 1958 Don Carlo has always been considered a top prize among Vickers’ early performances and not just because he is in stupendous voice. Here, for the first time, he is partnered with a stellar international cast such as one would not have expected from Covent Garden only a year previously. Their normal operating procedure was to hire one or two internationally-known star singers and then just fill in the rest of the cast with locals, but here you have the great Dutch soprano Gré Brouwenstijn as Elisabetta, mezzo Fedora Barbieri as Eboli, baritone Tito Gobbi as Rodrigo and Boris Christoff as King Philip II. Only the unnamed Friar (Joseph Rouleau) and the Grand Inquisitor (Michael Langdon, in somewhat rough voice) were Covent Garden regulars at the time. Carlo Maria Guilini was also hired to conduct and, except for extremely slow and quirky tempi in the famous duet “Dio, che nell’alma infondere,” he did an excellent job. And here, once again, Vickers is more poetic that purely dramatic.
Maria Callas was the one who approached Vickers and asked him to sing Giasone in Medea opposite her, claiming that he was the “right” tenor she had been looking for in that role. Two live performances survive. The first, from the Dallas Opera in 1958, is the more famous one because Callas was served with a subpoena for her “Rome Walkout” of Norma just before the performance, and took it out on Vickers and her role with anger and drama galore, but the sound quality isn’t very good. The second live performance, from London in 1959, catches both singers in excellent voice and is, in fact, the only recording I’ve ever heard of Callas’ voice that captures the sound perfectly. When I heard her in person (at one of her Master Classes in 1970), I noted that around the “sulphuric” core of her voice there was a halo of sound, overtones I would say, that created a beautiful aura around it, and this recording captures that.
Also superb is Vickers’ 1959 live recording of Handel’s Samson, and not just interpretively. One of the surprises of his vocal arsenal is his ability to negotiate the runs with perfect aplomb. This is surely something one would not expect from such a huge voice, but it attests to the excellent training he received from Davidson Thomson. The only vocal decoration that Vickers lacked was a serviceable trill.
When I say that Vickers sang poetically rather than just dramatically, I do not mean to infer that the libretti, particularly of the Italian operas, were really poetic in the strict sense of the word. That would be a false premise. What I mean is that he sang the words as if they were poetry. It’s not clear whether or not Vickers was singing lieder publicly in those days—the first song recital I can find with him dates from 1967—but he was probably already considering it if not actually doing it.
Interestingly, his attraction for poetic texts is probably the main reason why he sang Wagner’s Siegmund. The words in the first act scene with Sieglinde, particularly but not exclusively the “Wintersturme,” are among the finest that Wagner ever wrote. In his later lecture-recitals, he always complained that some of the most beautiful music and words were given to a character who had sex with his own sister, a moral transgression which his strict Christian upbringing clearly could not accept, but it was this poetic leaning of the text—along with the fact that Siegmund got his just desserts by being killed later in the opera—which led him to sing it so often. In December 1960 Nilsson and Vickers participated in a superb broadcast of Die Walküre conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. Otto Edelmann, the Wotan, was a bit brusque in his interpretation, ignoring some of the specific instructions in the score, but sang superbly, as did Vickers (one critic called it the best- sung Siegmund of his experience), Nilsson, and a now-forgotten American soprano, Gladys Kuchta, as Sieglinde. Kuchta’s voice, which retained its bright, youthful quality well into her 50s, was the perfect partner for Vickers’ surprisingly youthful-sounding Siegmund. In my view, this is the best of his early performances of the role.
1960 also produced two live performances of Fidelio, the first from the Met with Birgit Nilsson and conductor Karl Böhm, the latter from La Scala on December 12 of that year. The Met performance is ridiculously rushed by Böhm, so much so that he even makes Toscanini’s tempi sound normal. The latter is interesting because it marked the first time he worked with Herbert von Karajan, with whom he would do so much in the coming years. The tempi here are much better and, although Nilsson is also the Leonore, the cast contains two singers who would reprise their roles with Vickers and conductor Otto Klemperer two months later, Gottlob Frick as Rocco and Hans Hotter as Don Pizarro. Alas, the sound quality is muddy and there is some cross-current noise and music from an adjoining radio station during “Gott! Welch dunkel hier.”
Period of first commercial recordings, 1959-1962
The only commercial recording from this period was the 1959 Beecham Messiah, and for its time and place it captures the “real” sound of his voice extremely well, but except to sample his singing it is not a recording I endorse. Beecham used a 100-piece chorus and 100-piece orchestra as well as an overblown orchestration by Eugene Goossens that sounds more like a big band performance than like anything that Handel wrote; yet it is a guilty pleasure to hear Vickers, singing full throttle, joyously attack “Thou shalt break them.”
Despite its overblown sound, the Beecham Messiah sold surprisingly well and put Vickers on the map for the millions of listeners who had not heard him live. This led to a three-year contract with RCA Victor which started with a complete Otello in 1960 (I cannot find the exact date of recording anywhere online, but it was probably July since that’s when RCA did most of their recording in Rome). Vickers had not yet sung the role on stage, and in fact would not do so for two more years, but he evidently already planned to do so. The cast also starred soprano Leonie Rysanek in the first of what would be several performances she gave with Vickers over the next quarter-century and Tito Gobbi, who had sung with him in the 1958 Don Carlo, as Iago. This would be the last time these two artists sang together. While making the recording, conductor Tullio Serafin told Vickers that he was the finest Otello he had ever heard. Vickers commented that he probably wasn’t as good as Francesco Tamagno, the creator of the role. Serafin said, “Oh, no, I heard Tamagno sing Otello on the stage and you’re better than he was.” Serafin may have been referring not necessarily to the quality of Tamagno’s voice, which was considered extraordinary in its day, but to the way he distorted the music after his first year of singing it when Verdi himself could no longer reprimand him. (There’s a famous story of the time Toscanini conducted Tamagno in a performance of Otello and complained about his phrasing. Tamagno insisted that he learned this from Verdi himself. Unknown to the tenor, Toscanini managed to get Verdi himself to sit in the back of the theater, unseen, during a rehearsal. At one point where Tamagno distorted the phrasing, Verdi yelled out, “Who taught you that? Certainly not me!” To which the tenor began to whine, “You composers and conductors can never make up your minds how you want things!”) But Vickers, still not fully accepted worldwide as a great tenor, was immensely flattered by this.
Near the end of the sessions, Serafin asked him—not knowing about the CBC telecast—if he would ever consider singing the role of Andrea Chenier. Vickers said, “I didn’t know that you held that opera in such high esteem.” “I don’t,” said Serafin. “It’s a pretty good work but not a masterpiece, bit Giordano was a very good friend of mine, very supportive in my career, and I would like to conduct it with you.” A year later, when Vickers agreed to make his one and only opera aria recital disc for RCA, he specifically asked that Serafin be the conductor, and on it he sang Chenier’s two arias. After the recording was finished, Serafin said to him, “You feel the character of Chenier too deeply,” apparently thinking that the way the poet was presented in the opera was a bit shallow. But again, Vickers was flattered.
All things considered, Vickers’ Italian aria disc is one of his finest. The voice was captured here in surprisingly good fidelity, as was the complete Otello, and his interpretations were and remain unique. This was the only time he would ever sing anything from La Gioconda, Martha, L’Arlesiana or Tosca, and of course the Italians, who always prefer tenors with a brilliant top range, were not impressed.
A year later, Vickers sang Radames in a new recording of Aïda with RCA properties Leontyne Price, Tozzi and baritone Robert Merrill along with mezzo Rita Gorr. This Aïda also came out on RCA Victor though Decca owned the tapes. This time, the deal-breaker was the use of conductor Georg Solti, the biggest rising star of his time due to Decca’s “Ring” cycle. And as it turned out, this was yet another angst-ridden recording session for Vickers because Solti kept insisting on recording the same passages over and over again until the orchestral playing was perfect, even if it meant wearing out his singers. Vickers never forgot this, and after it was over he told Solti he would never sing with him again, a vow which he kept for the rest of his life.
But the gremlin engineers who had ruined the Walküre were also back at work in this Aïda. This time they didn’t recess the voices, but at someone’s insistence they exaggerated the treble and cut the bass and mid-range so much that they made all of the voices sound shrill and pinched, especially Vickers’. The first time I heard this recording, my first exposure to Vickers’ singing, I absolutely hated him. I thought he had a thin, pallid and non-ringing tenor voice. As it turned out, the only thing I was right about was the lack of ring; everything else was the fault of bad balances. And to this day, this 1962 Aïda sounds thin and shrill. One must cut the treble by 1.2 db, boost the mid-range by 3 db and the bass by 2 db in order to get some semblance of the right sound.
Later that year (1962), Vickers switched from RCA Victor to EMI where he recorded Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila with Rita Gorr, Ernest Blanc, and conductor Georges Prêtre. Once again the performance was a great one but the sound quality was thin and shrill. Small wonder that Vickers was starting to detest the process of studio recording. He also complained that the engineers made baritone Ernest Blanc’s modest-sized voice sound as large as his and Gorr’s. His exact comment was, “Modern recording is a miracle, it really is, but there’s something inherently wrong when you can make a small-voiced singer sound as big as a large-voiced one (this from the interview with John Amis).”
After this, he made the famous recording of Fidelio with Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry and Otto Klemperer, and in this case the sound balance was much warmer and closer to reality. Many people consider this recording a classic, but I do not. Klemperer’s tempi are just too slow and sluggish for this opera, particularly in the first act, and I for one don’t think that highly of Ludwig’s Leonore (she was to sing it much better, I think, in live performances).
But as it turns out, this Fidelio recording was a compromise. Klemperer had conducted a live production of this opera at Covent Garden in February and March 1961 with the same Florestan (Vickers) and Rocco (Gottlob Frick) but an entirely different Leonore (Sena Jurinac), Marzelline (Elsie Morison) and Don Pizarro (Hans Hotter). Klemperer wanted to keep this cast intact for the 1962 studio recording, but EMI’s A&R director, Walter Legge, changed everyone else. My thoughts on the matter are these: I believe that Legge first tried to get the cast that Klemperer wanted, but when he called Decca and asked if they could loan him Hans Hotter, he was told no because the bass-baritone was at that time deeply involved in recording Die Walküre with Solti. Unable to get Hotter, Legge probably then called baritone Walter Berry (who is on the recording) and asked him if he would sing Pizarro. Berry probably agreed on the condition that they use his wife, Ludwig, as Leonore, so that’s how we got that cast.
Aside from the superior sound quality, however, the 1961 live Fidelio is better artistically to the studio recording. Not only are Klemperer’s tempi a bit quicker, particularly in the first act but also in the second, but he conducts with a greater forward momentum and the whole performance jells much better. Of course, the caveat is that the live broadcast sound thins out Vickers’ voice somewhat, but he is still recognizable and his performance has all of his usual dramatic and poetic qualities.
In 2008, Deutsche Grammophon issued a live performance of Fidelio, purportedly dating from May 25, 1962, with Ludwig as Leonore and Vickers as Florestan, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Although they were indeed the singers of record on that date, anyone who is even halfway familiar with Vickers’ voice can tell that he is not the tenor in this performance. The singer in question has a rough, grainy voice, heavy on the bottom like Vickers’ but not at all free of the throat or rich-sounding. He also has an incipient wobble, something that Vickers never had at any stage of his career, even when he sang under vocal distress.
When I reviewed this recording for a major music magazine, I stated that it was not Vickers singing. I even went to Amazon.com to check reviews of this recording and, lo and behold, I found one by Vickers’ son (long since removed from the site) in which he said that this was not his father’s voice. But there are two other reviews still up that say the same. The first comes from Marc Musnick:
Something’s wrong with this recording, which is generally a wonderful performance of FIDELIO. But I cannot believe it is Jon Vickers singing Florestan. If it is, he must have been singing through a terrible head cold and sore throat. There is no trace of his tone. It’s not him. Maybe he was scheduled to sing the performance and withdrew. Also, the picture of Ludwig standing with Florestan doesn’t look at all like Vickers.
DGG is going to have to go through great lengths to convince me that’s Jon Vickers.
But the biggest clue as to who it is comes from someone named Mjhood on Amazon (this is a reduction of his comments):
Who is the Tenor – Sherlock Holmes decides!
The first night – 25th May 1962 – which this supposedly is, lists Vickers as Florestan – It most definitely is not him singing. I have followed Vicker’s career for 45 years and know his voice as well as anyone. I last saw him in this role at Covent Garden in 1976 under Goodall. The Vienna Archive lists Vickers as having sung this performance. His next Florestan in Vienna was in 1967.
The 2nd night- 12 June 1962 had the same cast but with Giuseppe Zampieri as Florestan – It is not Zampieri singing. Anyone wanting to compare, try the 1957 Salzburg Fidelio with Karajan and Zampieri(Orfeo) or the 1962 Verdi Requiem from Salzburg.
The third performance that Karajan conducted was 17th February 1963 again identical to the 2nd performance – so not that one.
The fourth performance of Karajan was on the 19th June 1963 with Dimiter Usunov as Florestan and the rest of the cast, the same.
This review, which was not posted at the time I reviewed the recording, provides the answer. I went to YouTube and checked out Dimiter Usunov (whose last name is also spelled Uzinov at times), not singing Florestan (it’s not online there) but singing other arias, and this is clearly the same voice. I have uploaded the purported Vickers “Gott! Welch dunkel hier” by Usunov, the real Vickers performance with Klemperer from 1961, and Usunov singing “Mamma, quel vino e generoso” from Cavalleria Rusticana so that you can hear for yourself. You can listen to them HERE, and I think you will agree with me. Deutsche Grammophon, quite simply, got tapes that were misdated.
Freed from his RCA contract, Vickers made no commercial recordings of any kind, although when he sang at the opening of New York’s Philharmonic Hall on September 23, 1962 with a host of star singers under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, a recording was made and later issued on Columbia. In this concert he sang for the first and only time with fellow-tenor Richard Tucker in a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music and the “Gloria” from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Both were released on LP, but the CD copies omit the Beethoven. With fairly natural miking, Vickers sounds pretty natural on this as well. In November 1962 he participated in a recording of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony for Westminster Records with the aged conductor Pierre Monteux, but in this case the microphones flattened all of the dynamics out of the performance, Monteux’s tempi were too slow, and everyone sounded pretty mediocre. This would be his last studio recording, save for one anomaly (mentioned below), for seven years.
Freelance tenor, 1963-68
In 1963, a year after he began singing Otello in live performances, Vickers gave one such at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires in May of 1963. The cast in this performance included the great Bulgarian soprano Rain Kabaivanska, later a favorite of conductor Herbert von Karajan, a little-known but excellent baritone named Gian-Piero Mastromei, and Teatro Colon house singers such as tenor Eugenio Valeri (Cassio) and mezzo-soprano Isabel Casey (Emilia), conducted by the Croatian Berislav Klobučar, who worked at the Vienna State Opera for more than 40 years and also conducted at Bayreuth. The odd thing about this recording is that, although it is in stereo, the orchestra seems to be coming out of the left channel and all the voices come out of the right. Apparently, Teatro Colon did not use two microphones set up on either side of the stage, but one over the orchestra pit and one directly over the stage, which resulted in this odd effect. Yet this would prove to be an even better representation of Vickers’ Otello in the early 1960s than his studio recording with Serafin; in addition to the quicker tempi, the whole cast sounded more “locked in” to their characters, and the microphone setup emphasized the bright quality of Vickers’ voice which he could still produce at that time. Mastromei, in fact, sings so well that many listeners used to his voice in other performances claim that it is not he but Louis Quilico singing Iago. The problem is that Quilico’s voice sounds nothing like Mastromei’s, just as Usunov sounded nothing like Vickers in the DG Fidelio.
August 13, 1964 saw his return to the Bayreuth Festival, this time singing his first Parsifal in one of Hans Knappertsbusch’s last performances of the opera (he suffered a fall later that year, never recovered, and died the following year). Vickers himself sang superbly, Swedish mezzo Barbro Ericson, though not possessed of the most glamorous voice or penetrating dramatic insight, gave an excellent performance Kundry, Thomas Stewart, one of the very few contemporaries of Vickers who could hold his own as a stage actor, sang Amfortas, and Knappertsbusch gave one of his most transcendent performances. The one weak link in the cast was Hans Hotter as Gurnemanz. His wobble had become chronic and irreversible by this time, thus voice was a wreck despite a superb interpretation. This, however, is one of Vickers’ best complete Parsifal (more on this later) because overall everything clicked pretty well. It was also Vickers’ last appearance at the Festival. He was involved in negotiations with Wieland Wagner to sing Siegfried at Bayreuth when the great director suddenly died in October of 1966. Thus did the first attempt to bring Vickers to Siegfried fizzle out.
In the fall of 1966, Vickers made his only commercial LP opera recording of that period, Die Walküre with Régine Crespin (Brünnhilde), Thomas Stewart (Wotan, an actor on his level), Gundula Janowitz (Sieglinde) and Martti Talvela (Hunding) under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. The performance was heavily criticized (and still is) for Karajan’s relaxed tempi and loose sense of rhythm, but in February of 1967 the same cast performed the opera live at the Salzburg Festival and this performance really took off. Vickers is in much finer voice here than in the studio, and his interpretation has changed and deepened since 1960. I would place this among his very greatest performances on record, even better than the studio recording, although Karajan’s quirky tempo-shifting makes for hard listening. Nonetheless, I would not be without the first act and second-act scene with Brünnhilde from this performance. They reveal a much greater reading of the text, even if the voice is not as free or transcendent.
In April of 1967 Vickers gave a recital in New York with the pianist who would accompany him in most of his concerts through the mid-1970s, Richard Woitach. Woitach was an excellent accompanist, and the recital, which begins with two arias from Messiah (“Behold and see if there be” and “But thou didst not leave His soul in hell”) and ends with Dvořák’s Gypsy Melodies, includes a rare performance by Vickers of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Interestingly, the tenor himself wrote the liner notes for the 1993 CD release, which he focused on Dichterliebe. Parts of this are quite revealing:
There are those who have seen in the Dichterliebe an opportunity to play the role of amateur armchair psychoanalyst and have delved into the music and the text in attempts to psychoanalyze Schumann and discover what they see as the real truth about the relationship of Schumann and Clara.
These attempts, I believe, diminish the greatness of Schumann and blind one to what can be learned from Schumann’s tender, loving and agonizing exploration of love from a unique point of view and his shedding new light upon love from a different perspective.
I think that these few words give the listener immense insight into the way that Vickers approached not only Dichterliebe but all song literature in general and even opera. He was often quoted as saying that “Great art asks questions but does not provide the answers.” Another famous quote was that “Opera is a lousy form of entertainment. There are many other things you could go to hear that would entertain you better, but they don’t penetrate the human condition as well as opera does.” These, too, give us a glimpse into the way Vickers approached singing and what he tried to convey with it.
Also in 1967, Vickers made the first of three professional films for Unitel with Karajan, a complete Carmen with Grace Bumbry, Mirella Freni and Justino Diaz. This performance includes Ernest Guiraud’s sung recitatives that were added after Bizet’s death to make the opera more palatable outside of the Opéra-Comique. Unfortunately, it is undoubtedly the worst of all of Vickers’ video performances as he squints continually from beginning to end. It’s possible that the lights were in his eyes, but in any case he made no complaint and allowed the performance to be shown on television. The sound thins out his voice somewhat, though not as bad as in the 1961 Die Walküre. That same year, he also performed the role (also with Bumbry, but with Gabriel Bacquier as Escamillo) with the Philadelphia Opera Company at the Academy of Music under Anton Guadagno, but the sound of this performance is thin and the voices a bit too distant.
The following year he made his second Unitel film with Karajan, a complete Pagliacci with Kabaivanska and Welsh baritone Peter Glossop. This is considerably better than the Carmen film in every respect except the sound of his voice; the low range is rather diminished, though not as badly as in some other recordings. Many listeners have been disappointed by what they hear as underplayed drama in the role of Canio, but again, they’re listening for the wrong thing. In Pagliacci, as in Carmen and Fidelio, Vickers was a poetic figure bringing out the way in which events affected the protagonist, not one full of dramatic fire. (Karajan made a companion film the same year of Cavalleria Rusticana, but the tenor in this opera was Gianfranco Cecchele, not Vickers.) After this film, Vickers reprised Canio in a live performance at the Téatro Colon in Buenos Aires. Here, Cornell MacNeil was Tonio (about the same strengths and weaknesses as Glossop), and the sound is pretty decent mono, but Joan Carlyle’s Nedda can’t hold a candle to Kabaivanska’s.
Along this same time, Vickers suddenly added a new role to his repertoire, that of the somewhat demented, loner fisherman in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. The composer intensely disliked Vickers’ Grimes for two reasons. First, he thought that Vickers emphasized the fisherman’s madness too much, making him an unsympathetic character, but this was due to the fact that, in his mind, Britten was trying to draw a parallel between the mad fisherman of The Borough and the plight of homosexuals in society. Unfortunately, if one reads George Crabbe’s original poem, Vickers’ interpretation is much closer to the historical Grimes than that of Peter Pears, for whom the role was originally written…and in fact, Pears greatly admired Vickers’ Grimes, much to the consternation of Britten. Secondly, and probably more justified, both Vickers and conductor Colin Davis used an earlier, corrupted score of the opera which Britten had since amended, although the majority of listeners, including professional musicians, felt that the changes Britten made were relatively cosmetic. Nonetheless, Vickers brought to the role all of his dramatic and poetic powers, making him simultaneously pathetic and frightening. When he debuted this role at the Metropolitan Opera on January 20, 1967, veteran critic Irving Kolodin put it this way in the Saturday Review of Literature:
Possessed of both the physique and the vocal stamina for the part, Vickers has been formed by (director Tyrone) Guthrie into a powerful embodiment of the drives and the uncertainties, the inner tensions and, occasionally, the outer releases, of a fate-driven personality. Controlled this time were the lunges and purely muscular manifestations that Vickers has relied upon in even the best of his prior impersonations. Whether the credit is wholly Guthrie’s, or partially Davis’s, or mainly Vickers’s, the end result is something of a rarity on the operatic stage: a virtuoso performance of a far from simple vocal task combined with a powerful involvement in the human condition that spells his life or death.
Despite the fact that Kolodin has wrongly given credit to Guthrie for Vickers’ interpretation—even as Parsifal at Bayreuth, the tenor was credited for both his mastery of the character and his subtlety of sing, including some exquisite head tone in the last act—this is an excellent description of Vickers’ Grimes. It was a character he could identify with, not exclusively because of Crabbe’s description but also because of the way that Britten and librettist Montague Slater had changed him around a bit. Balancing out the brusque toughness of Grimes’ character, which undoubtedly appealed to the former farm boy from Saskatchewan, was his strange poetic side, the part of him that included the most exquisite moment in the opera, Grimes’ aria “Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades.”
It is also worth noting that, ever since Vickers’ Grimes became an iconic interpretation, even modern British-isle tenors like Anthony Dean Griffey and Stuart Skelton lean more towards Vickers than Pears. Both have fairly big voices (Skelton’s even bigger than Griffey’s), and both emphasize the roughness of the character far more than Pears did. In this specific role, then, Jon Vickers made a long-lasting dramatic shift in the way both performers and audiences see and hear Grimes.
As mentioned earlier, Vickers’ Erik in Der Fliegende Holländer and Laca in Jenufa have unfortunately disappeared forever, though the first of these was clearly a one-off. One could possibly dismiss this performance because of that but, as we will see, much of Vickers’ later career would consists of a surprisingly large number of one-offs, some of them roles one would never associate with his voice in a hundred years. It was part of his restlessness as an artist. He simple had to keep trying new and different things, and since his artistic temperament wouldn’t allow him to stray into the fields of harmonically complex modern works, he often reached backwards in time to present his version of operatic characters that appealed to him.
In fact, Vickers’ return to the recording studio, as well as two productions in the early 1970s (one at Covent Garden and one at the Metropolitan) of one of his major roles from the late 1950s was, for many operagoers, the event that finally put him on the map as one of the greatest tenors of all time.
Return to the studio, plus more one-offs, 1969-76
That recording, made in the summer of 1969, was the first complete commercial recording of Berlioz’ Les Troyens. This opera was an enigma to most Western audiences but not at Covent Garden. Sir Thomas Beecham had conducted the first performance of the complete opera in the 20th century in 1947, in two concert performances that had two different sopranos in the role of Ascagne (Iréne Joachim in the first part, Maria Braneze in the second), and Rafael Kubelik, with Vickers as Énée, gave the first staged performances at Covent Garden a decade later. Thus by the time Colin Davis entered the studio with what was then considered an all-star cast in 1969, Les Troyens was already in the blood of British musicians and audiences though it was a complete enigma to most of those outside of England.
For this recording, as for most of those that followed in the ensuing decade, Vickers switched over to the Polygram group which included Philips, Deutsche Grammophon and Decca (London Records in the U.S.), though he would never actually record for the latter. The sound of his voice on this recording is roughly the same as it had been on the 1962 Fidelio, capturing his power but not the depth and amplitude of the voice. Even so, he makes such a dramatic entrance as Énée that you never forget it; he comes roaring in at full volume, and although the engineers had to cap his voice somewhat so as not to make the records blast when they were played at home, it is an incredible sound that he makes. By comparison with the 1962 Aïda, which unfortunately was the first recording I ever heard by him, he sounds impressive indeed, and his interpretation deepens poetically in the love duet with Didon, yet although this now became one of his signature roles he didn’t care as much for the role as he might have. As he told John Amis, he viewed Énée as “more heroic but less human” than the other characters he sang, even more so than Samson. “For better or worse, I consider myself an artist,” he once said in another interview, and he carried his mindset and aesthetic into every role and every performance he ever inhabited. And for Vickers, “inhabited” is the proper term, because one he came on stage he was no longer Jon Vickers but the character he was portraying.
But although this is a good recording, complete and in French, it is not, for me, the preferred Vickers Les Troyens. That one is listed a bit further on below.
Although it would be another nine years before Vickers deigned to record Peter Grimes for posterity, there exist two broadcasts from Covent Garden, the first from May 30, 1969 and the second from September 3, 1975, both with Heather Harper as Ellen Orford, Elisabeth Bainbridge as Auntie and Colin Davis conducting. The first also includes Geraint Evans as Balstrode. Although the second of these is in stereo sound, it is a bit hissy whereas the first of these has excellent broadcast sound quality. It is also one of the most intense performances of the role he ever gave, almost frightening in the way his character explodes unexpectedly.
Before signing a contract with Polygram, Vickers made two last recordings for EMI: the Verdi Requiem with Sir John Barbirolli. just a couple of months before he died, and the complete Carmen with Bumbry again as the protagonist but Kostas Paskalis as Escamillo, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting, and the original spoken recitatives. Sadly, this was made near the end of the era in which record companies foolishly hired actors to do the spoken recits instead of letting the singers themselves do them, so there is no relationship here between Vickers’ singing voice and the guy speaking his lines, but otherwise this is one of his finest performances, even more refined than in the 1967 film performance with Karajan.
Now that Vickers was a Polygram artist, it meant that he could record again with one of his favorite conductors, Karajan, and this he did in three major studio outings. The first of these was a new Fidelio in 1970, sonically superior to the Klemperer recording but even more wayward in tempi and occasionally slack in momentum. The second, and more interesting, was his first outing as Tristan, which he had never sung before. In later years, Vickers said that he was initially approached by Karajan to sing the Götterdämmerung Siegfried, which attracted him, “but then we started talking about Tristan so Siegfried was put aside.” Thus did the second and last attempt to get Vickers to sing Siegfried come to naught. Opinion on this Tristan recording were divided. British critics, who were forever wanting their Wagner heroines to sound “lovely,” “womanly” and “vulnerable,” loved soprano Helga Dernesch’s interpretation, while most others found her underpowered—for better or worse, Karajan refused to artificially “pump up” medium-sized voices to sound larger, which suited Vickers just fine—and the conducting rather mannered, as was Karajan’s wont. (Karajan was forever tinkering with Wagner’s tempi and phrasing, trying to combine the excitement of Toscanini with the gemüchlicht of Furtwängler, but never equaled the brilliance of either conductor in this music.) The same cast also performed the opera “live” the following year, and a recording of that exists as well.
For me, and I think for many other true opera lovers, the best Vickers recording of Les Troyens is the live performance from Covent Garden on October 7, 1972. Though sung in English rather than French and with several of the ballet numbers cut (but not the “Royal Hunt and Storm”), it has several great advantages over the studio recording. First and perhaps most important, Davis’ conducting doesn’t sound stodgy in places as it does on the 1969 recording: both the chorus and orchestra sound wide awake and fully engaged dramatically. Secondly, Berit Lindholm’s rather whiny-sounding Cassandre is replaced by Josephine Veasey, the Didon of the studio recording. And thirdly, in this performance Vickers’ Énée is partnered by the greatest Didon of the 20th century, Janet Baker. The sheer pleasure one gets from hearing Baker and Vickers strike sparks off each other is reward enough for preferring this live version over the studio recording. And here, with livelier conducting and choral singing, one can truly appreciate what Alan Rich, writing in New York Magazine a year later when Rafael Kubelik brought Les Troyens to the Met, said about Vickers’ portrayal:
Jon Vickers’s Aeneas is the work of a supreme musical artist, a singer with more command than anyone I know of dramatic vocal color, a man whose every musical gesture means something vital to the situation in which he is involved. While not perfectly endowed by nature to suggest either the heroism or the ardor of Aeneas – and his Gorgeous-George blond wig really ought to be reconsidered – Vickers is one of those exceptional singers whose command of the art of singing dwarfs any and all other considerations. Shirley Verrett, who sings both the Cassandra and, because of the continued illness of Christa Ludwig, the Dido, has for herself a stunning triumph in both roles. She is glorious to behold, and her luscious, pliant voice is at this moment in prime estate. The range of moods she must encompass during the long evening, the flaming passion in the melodic lines Berlioz invented for both of his heroines: these are incredible challenges, and Verrett has met them in a way that has to rank as one of the great personal “tours de force” in the company’s 90-year history.
Vickers’ Énée was so good and so memorable that here was another role where he completely changed people’s thinking about casting. Prior to his singing it for the first time in 1957-58, albeit only in London, the role had, naturally, been the province of French tenors, but except for the stupendous fort tenors Léon Escalaïs and Paul Franz, none of them really had the heft for the role and neither of them ever sang any of Énée’s music. Georges Thill, an excellent lyric tenor with a good-sized but still rather modest voice, recorded Énée’s big scene “Inutiles regrets” in 1930, and did a good job on it, but he didn’t sing the role in the opera house either. In July 1947, Sir Thomas Beecham assembled a cast for a performance of the second half of the opera in a London concert performance, and his tenor was Jean Guiradeau who, like Thill, had a good lyric voice with a ring to it, but as soon as Vickers took the stage to sing Énée a decade later, everything changed.
The third and last collaboration between Vickers and Karajan during the ‘70s was, of course, his 1973 Otello, and in this case there seemed to be a collaboration between Deutsche Grammophon, which produced the Unitel video of this performance, and EMI, which issued the recording on LP. This was probably due to the presence of soprano Mirella Freni as Desdemona; she was an exclusive and highly-valued EMI artist and would remain so into the 1980s, but since Karajan had used her on his Decca-London recording of La Bohème in 1972, he probably let EMI issue this set in exchange. Vickers was clearly not in as good voice here as he was in 1960, but his interpretation had grown considerably; due possibly to his having sung Gherman in Queen of Spades and the title role in Peter Grimes had given him the impetus to present the Moor of Venice as both a poetic and dramatic character. From the early 1970s onward, his Otello would be one of his signature roles, one that he sang around the world (though not in Italy, where they didn’t appreciate his non-ringing voice) with increasing acclaim as well as increasing trepidation from his Desdemonas, who feared that Vickers would forget himself and actually choke them to death in the last act!
The 1970s were also full of one-off performances, several at the Orange Music Festival, or Chorégies d’Orange, a huge outdoor ampitheater located about 21 kilometers north of Avignon in southern France. Although these performances had to be professionally amplified with microphones—the sprawled-out audience could never have heard them otherwise—Vickers’ huge, diffuse voice absolutely blossomed in these situations. The problem was that, when recordings of these performances were issued (some on video, some on CD, some both ways, some not at all until decades later), there was so much space around the voices that they sounded as if they were recorded in an empty Grand Central Station in New York. There is often too much reverb on the recordings and, in the case of one of them, there was a brisk wind whipping around during the performance. The sound of the wind blowing across the microphones was picked up as an almost constant “whooshing” sound which further degraded the sound quality. Others were given in a variety of different venues where a tenor of Vickers’ fame and professional status seemed out of place, such as Sarah Caldwell’s small Boston Opera Company and the small companies of Guelph and Ottawa in his native Canada.
Another strange thing about these years was that Vickers sometimes sang starring roles not recorded elsewhere and sometimes in roles so small that they really amounted to cameo appearances. But it would be more instructive, I think, to simply list all those I have come across (omitting the really poor recordings) in chronological order.
January 2, 1970: Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde with Maureen Forrester, Boston Symphony Orchestra; William Steinberg, conductor. This little-known broadcast recording is vastly superior for Vickers to his 1986 studio recording with Colin Davis. On the latter, he sounds loud and gruff throughout, but here he modulates his voice much better and produces a superb performance. Forrester is also in excellent voice and, in fact, this live setting eliminates the somewhat dry, guttural sound that often afflicted her studio recordings in German.
September 11, 1970: Beethoven Fidelio with Ingrid Bjöner, Renate Holm, Gerhard Unger, Franz Crass (Rocco), Gustav Neidlinger (Pizarro), Téatro Colon Chorus & Orch., Buenos Aires; Ferdinand Leitner, conductor. This has surprisingly good stereo sound but falls flat due to Leitner’s conducting; nonetheless, Bjöner, Neidlinger (near the end of his career), Holm and Vickers are quite good.
April 18 & May 8, 1971: Two complete Covent Garden performances of Wagner’s Parsifal conducted by Reginald Goodall, whose dead, dull, stodgy pacing kills and already slow opera. The first of these features an aged Gottlob Frick as Gurnemanz, the second the rock-steady but little-known Louis Hendrikx. Any Shuard is Kundry in both performances and, oddly enough, her voice sounds much more palatable as a mezzo than as a high soprano. But the second performance, issued in 2015 by the Royal Opera House on Opus Arte, has spectacular stereo sound. If you want to hear Vickers’ voice remarkably lifelike, this is the recording to get, but I still prefer his earlier (1964) and later (see below) performances.
May 25, 1972: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with pretty much the same cast as on Karajan’s studio recording—Dernesch as Isolde, Ludwig as Brangëne, Berry as Kurwenal and Karl Ridderbusch as King Marke. Interesting because it was Vickers’ first live performance of the opera, and the sound is pretty good, but it’s a bit sloppy.
October 11, 1972: Purcell, Dido and Aeneas with Tatiana Troyanos, Graziella Sciutti and Joan Caplan (Sorceress); Dallas Opera Orch., Nicola Rescigno, conductor. This is the first of those “What the heck?!?” recordings I referred to earlier, a part so small that I wonder if Vickers demanded his full fee to sing it. Probably done as a favor to either Rescigno, who he had worked with in the Callas Medeas, or to Troyanos, an artist he admired but with whom he never sang before or again. Rescigno uses a full modern orchestra but it plays very well; the sound is somewhat distant but good enough to capture an outstanding performance all the way round.
July 7, 1973: Tristan und Isolde with Birgit Nilsson, Walter Berry, Ruth Hesse and Bengt Rundgren; New Philharmonia Chorus, Orchestre National de l’ORTF, Karl Böhm, conductor. This is THE Vickers Tristan for most of his fans, myself included, although for decades it was only available in poor sound due to the wind whipping across the outdoor microphones at the Orange Festival. Miraculously, however, an engineer at Sony Classical was able to remove most of the whoosh and hiss without damaging the sound of the voices or orchestra, and this is the preferred version, released as part of a multi-disc set honoring Nilsson in complete opera performances.
July 13, 1974: Strauss’ Salome with Leonie Rysanek, Thomas Stewart (Jokanaan), Ruth Hesse, Horst Laubenthal (Narraboth); Orchestre National de France, Rudolf Kempe, conductor. This Orange Festival performance is another “What the heck?!?” moment for Vickers. The role of Herod is somewhat important because you need a big voice that can cut the orchestra, but it’s usually given to former dramatic tenors on their way down. It’s possible that Vickers agreed to it because he really appreciated working with Rysanek, one of his favorite colleagues, or because he admired conductor Rudolf Kempe. He’s fabulous in the part but it’s another one of those Orange Festival sound horrors.
July 20, 1974: Bellini: Norma with Montserrat Caballé, Josephine Veasey, Agostino Ferrin; Teatro Regio di Torino Orch. & Chorus conducted by Giuseppe Patané. This performance has achieved almost mythic status, particularly among Caballé fans, in part because the soprano herself said it was her greatest performance of the role, which she coached with Maria Callas. Callas was supposedly so pleased by it when she saw it that she sent Caballé a pair of diamond earrings that had been given to her back in the 1950s by Visconti. Vickers is simply phenomenal as Pollione, and this marks the only time he ever performed in a “bel canto” opera, though he doesn’t sing or act it as such despite his faultless legato. Rather, he prowls the stage like a caged panther, angry and straining to break loose, thus bringing a much-needed element of tension to this work. My guess is that he was recommended to Caballé by Callas. In the scenes with both of them, Caballé sings with greater intensity and drama than she normally did, and those scenes are indeed very exciting, as is Pollione’s Act I aria. Sadly, the sound is typical Orange Festival again, lots of wind whooshing across the microphones and, in this case, the voices thinned out by the microphones and dreadful reverb, but this is clearly one of Vickers’ indispensable performances.
Fall 1974 (exact date unknown): Britten: The Rape of Lucretia with Lyn Verdon (Female chorus), Patricia Rideout (Lucretia), Claude Corbeil (Collatinus), Allan Monk (Tarquinius), Guelph Festival Orch., Nicholas Goldschmidt, conductor. This one has fairly dreadful sound, though not as bad as the Tchaikovsky Queen of Spades discussed below. As far as I can tell, this is the only Britten opera other than Grimes that he ever sang, and he is superb, giving the proper weight and drama to his role…plus, with a voice as big as his, he sounds like an entire male chorus! He probably agreed to sing it because he had performed it at the Stratford Festival in 1956, the Canadian premiere of the opera, with Regina Resnik as Lucretia, Jennie Tourel as the Female Chorus, and a very young Rideout as Bianca. Plus, Vickers was always very congenial towards fellow-Canadians, whose company he enjoyed offstage as well as on, and Rideout probably asked him to do it as a favor to her. (In addition, Alan Monk was an internationally famous baritone who was also Canadian.) In my opinion, Rideout does as good a job in the principal role as Janet Baker did on the famous Britten recording, Goldschmidt’s conducting is taut and exciting, and the whole cast gives their all. True, the Male Chorus is not the main male vocal role in the opera, but it is extremely important, fairly lengthy, and Vickers rises to the occasion.
March 1975: Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus conducted by James Levine. Vickers had a rough spring of 1975, suffering from off-and-on colds, but his Don Alvaro in Forza was, for me at least, an unforgettable experience. Many collectors are frustrated by the fact that a complete recording of the Forza broadcast does not seem to exist, but I can give you one reason why. The day of the broadcast, I was working at a job where I had free rein to do as I wished so long as I attended to my duties, so I dragged by reel-to-reel tape recorder along with me, hooked it up to the radio, and started recording it…but three-quarters of the way through I turned it off and stopped. Why? Not because of Vickers—he was fine—but because the Met had switched casts on me, and the replacements were vastly inferior. When I saw him sing it on the stage, the soprano was the glorious Martina Arroyo and the baritone Matteo Managuerra, whose voice was almost as large as Vickers’ own, but for the broadcast we got stuck with Lucine Amara, a soprano with no interpretive skills and a dull, basemetal voice that I intensely disliked, and baritone Cornell MacNeil, the powerful head of the singers’ union but a singer with an uneven flutter in the voice, as Don Carlo. What I have is all that I kept: the opening scene with Amara and the duets “Solenne in quest’ora,” “Sleale! Il segreto” and “Le minnaccie” with MacNeil. Why I didn’t keep the aria “O tu che in seno agl’angeli” was because Vickers cracked on the high B-flat. But here we are nearly a half-century later, and I wish I had kept more of it with Vickers, although what survives is still riveting. Once again, it is the poetry of the character’s text that he brings out over and over again.
May 1975: Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini in Boston with Patricia Wells (Teresa), John Reardon (Balducci), Donald Gramm (Pope Clement), Boston Opera Company Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Sarah Caldwell. Another very strange one-off of a role Vickers never touched before or after, and sung in English instead of French. 1975 was a rough year for Vickers; he was fighting colds in both the spring and the fall, and thus produces here a few dicey high notes. His difficult last-act aria is cut, but his performance is authoritarian as only Vickers could be. Patricia Wells is a pretty good (but not great) Teresa, and John Reardon’s voice is a trifle light for Balducci, but overall the performance is quite credible if recommended only for Vickers fans.
September 19, 1975: Don Carlo at the Vienna Staatsoper with Gwyneth Jones (Elisabetta), Eva Randová (Eboli), Franco Bordoni (Rodrigo), Cesare Siepi (King Philip) and Otto Wiener (Grand Inquisitor), Vienna Staatsoper Chorus & Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anton Guadagno. This was a “hot” night for the singers in this performance, even the young and little-known baritone Franco Bordoni, but for me it’s not a viable alterative to the 1958 broadcast from Covent Garden because the sound is execrable.
November 30, 1975: Giordano: Andrea Chenier in Dallas (sometimes misdated as 1973) with Ilva Ligabue, Silvano Carroli, Linus Carlson and Lili Chookasian, Nicola Rescigno conducting. Here, seven years after Tullio Serafin’s death, Vickers finally sang Chenier on stage. The sound quality is a little distant, being recorded from audience level, but surprisingly clear and in stereo. The tantalizing hints we got from his performances of Chenier’s two arias on his 1961 recital disc are here fulfilled in a full performance brimming over with drama and poetry. The little-known Ligabue and Carroli are surprisingly good as Maddalena and Carlo Girard; for me, this is the only recording of this opera other than the one with Maria Caniglia and Beniamino Gigli that I really enjoy listening to.
April 18, 1976: Parsifal at the Paris Opéra with Kurt Moll (Gurnemanz), Theo Adam (Amfortas), Nadine Denize (Kundry), Jules Bastin (Klingsor), Paris Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Horst Stein, conductor. This is a really superior Parsifal, both in performance and sound quality. Only Theo Adam, roughly a decade past his sell-by date, is rather wobbly, but Amfortas is, happily, a much smaller role than that of Gurnemanz, sung handsomely by Kurt Moll. Personally, I prefer Knappertsbusch’s conducting a tad more than Stein’s, as well as hearing Vickers’ voice in the “Bayreuth sound,” thus I lean more towards the 1964 performance even though it is in mono (Vickers’ conception of Parsifal really hadn’t changed much), but the choice is yours.
June 22, 1976: Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades [Pique Dame] in English with Teresa Kubiak (Lisa), Maureen Forrester (Countess), Janice Taylor (Pauline), Allan Monk (Count Tomsky) and Cornelius Opthof (Prince Yeletsky), Ottowa Opera Chorus & Orchestra, Mario Bernardi, conductor. Another strange one-off from Canada, again with Canadian colleagues Forrester and Monk, both of whom Vickers admired but particularly Forrester whose voice was nearly as big as his own. This comes under the category of really bad sound, so much so that, even though it’s sung in English, you can’t make out a word that Vickers, Monk or Forrester is singing and they had near-perfect diction, but indispensable for Vickers fans. Polish soprano Teresa Kubiak, whose voice often sounded a bit shrill and tremulous when I heard her at the Metropolitan, sounds splendid here, possibly due to the distant microphone placement. Why they did it in English I don’t know, but Vickers never sang anything in a Slavic language; it was always an English translation.
December 6, 1976: Tristan und Isolde at the Vienna State Opera with Nilssson, Hesse, Hans Gunther Nöcker (Kurwenal), Hans Sotin (King Marke), the Vienna Staatsoper Chorus and Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Horst Stein. This performance, recorded in really decent sound, is a good alternative to the 1973 Orange Festival performance, but Nilsson is not in as good voice—this was the beginning of her having a bit of “spread” in the voice, particularly noticeable in slow passages—Hans Gunther Nocker isn’t quite as interesting a Kurwenal as Walter Berry, and I prefer Böhm’s pacing and shaping of the opera but again the choice is yours.
Back to the recording studio etc., 1978-86
After years of negotiation, Vickers was finally persuaded to record his interpretation of Peter Grimes for posterity in the summer of 1978. His old colleagues Heather Harper, Elizabeth Bainbridge and conductor Colin Davis were there to back him up; unable to get Geraint Evans to sing the role of Balstrode, they settled on a newcomer, baritone Jonathan Summers, and this recording helped make him a star. Also new to the cast was another rising young baritone, Thomas Allen, as Ned Keene. I well remember when this recording came out; I couldn’t wait to get it, and neither could many other Vickers fans. Copies flew off the record store shelves.
Later than same year, Vickers participated in another “What the heck?!?” one-off, singing the secondary tenor role of Vašek in the Metropolitan’s new production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. The opera was being staged primarily to showcase tenor Nicolai Gedda as Jenek, soprano Teresa Stratas (another Canadian colleague) as Marenka, and the great Martti Talvela as Kečal, with James Levine conducting, thus Vickers’ participation seemed odd to say the least, knowing that he would steal any scene he appeared in, but in an interview Vickers said that director John Dexter begged him to take on the role. Vickers also said that what he wanted to do was to bring out the character’s essential goodness, that even though Vašek was a bit of a simpleton he was the only honest character in the entire opera. Again, I well remember watching the telecast of November 21, 1978 and being utterly fascinated by this chameleon’s ability to sing a comic role and do it justice—albeit in a voice so large that Gedda and Stratas were dwarfed. Gedda was not amused; in his autobiography, he never even mentioned this production.
Despite finally recording his Grimes, Vickers was still pretty much a stranger to the recording studio, but in 1981 he actually made a commercial film of the opera, which came out on Beta, VHS, and later on DVD. This, too, is one of his truly great and indispensable video recordings; his Grimes is so visceral that it practically bursts off the screen and into your living room. Harper and Davis are back on bard, but this time Norman Bailey sings Balstrode.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were filled with performances that, to the best of my knowledge, were never recorded, including a Tristan with soprano Roberta Knie as Isolde, and a performance of Otello in South Africa during the early 1908s, still the era of Apartheid. He had accepted the offer on behalf of character tenor Murray Dickie, a native South African. Everything went well during rehearsals, but the first time Vickers came out on stage made up in blackface the audience gasped. They simply couldn’t accept a black man being married to a white woman. That was when Vickers realized the evil of this social system and vowed never to perform in South Africa again.
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Vickers also gave recitals in which the program was devoted to Canadian art songs. Some of these are not really great material, but the CD issued by the Canadian label Centrediscs in 2008 (probably a good 30 years after the recital was given…it is undated on the CD info) is an excellent one, including song by Srul Irving Glick, Harry Somers, Jean Coulthard, Godfrey Ridout and John Beckwith (among others).
In 1983, he gave a performance of Schubert’s Winterreise with Peter Schaaf as pianist. He obviously intended to once again interpret the words poetically, but in this case he did so by slowing down and often distorting the music. A year later, he convinced EMI to let him record the cycle, but they insisted that he use the great lieder accompanist Geoffrey Parsons as his pianist. Parts of this performance are still slowed down quite a bit and Vickers still interprets the text poetically, but Parsons refused to allow further slow-downs within any of the songs; once a tempo was chosen and set, he did not deviate from it until the end. The result was a fascinating and very individual recording which is still a matter of taste among Schubert fanciers but, I feel, an important part of Vickers’ output. Oddly, the LP was only issued in France.
Vickers sang what would prove to be his last Met Florestan in January 1984, and the production was a truly great one, conducted by the incendiary conductor Klaus Tennstedt (his only Met production). The cast included James Atherton as Jacquino, Roberta Peters as Marzelline (a little wobbly in her opening duet but quite good thereafter), Eva Marton as Leonore, Paul Plishka as Rocco and Franz Mazura as Pizarro. For some reason, Vickers had an argument over something with Tennstedt during one of the rehearsals and almost refused to go through with it, but everything clicked with the result being one of the finest Fidelios of Vickers’ entire career (you can listen to it complete HERE). It was so good that even musicians in the Met orchestra, inured to hundreds of performances of various operas under various conductors, still spoke of it decades later as being the highlight of their careers.
In the spring of 1985 he performed Parsifal (I think for the last time) at the Met with an old and dear colleague, soprano Leonie Rysanek (they were born only a month apart in the fall of 1926). Miraculously, both artists, though well on in years (both were 57) and having used their voices rather hard through most of their careers, were able to pull it together and give a transcendent performance, of which only Act II survives as a recording.
In 1986 he recorded Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with soprano Jessye Norman and conductor Colin Davis, but what should have been the crowning glory of his career came out sounding very strange indeed. Now struggling with the high tessitura of the music, Vickers resorts to shouting everything, even the songs in which he was supposed to sing softly, and ends up sounding nasty and cranky.
The recital years, 1988-1994 & beyond
Vickers retired from the stage at roughly age 62 and began giving lecture-recitals to small audiences. He really enjoyed this, as it gave him the chance to speak to his audience between numbers and explain his reason for including each piece. Sometimes, particularly after he stopped singing, he appeared as a lecturer, giving his philosophy of opera and taking some questions from the audience, which he also enjoyed. Vickers always said that his performances were geared for the 10% of the opera audience that “got it” and understood what he was doing. He often said, “For better or worse, I consider myself an artist.” After he couldn’t sing any more, he still performed speaking parts, such as in Richard Strauss’ Enoch Arden, into the early 2000s. But he was a tad cynical towards his career when it was over, summing it up thus:
“I was just a singer. I did my best, and now it’s over”
But no one who ever saw and heard this man in person will ever forget him or think that “it’s over.” He was a giant among tenors and among stage actors of his day, and he left an indelible mark on the artform that will never be erased.
One of the longest and most interesting interviews Vickers ever gave was with Chicago-area radio commentator, music lecturer and announcer/producer at WNIB-FM in Evanston. You can access it here: https://bruceduffie.com/vickers.html
It would be wonderful if I could say that Jon Vickers’ last years were happy ones, that by living to age 88 he was able to enjoy his family and friends after so many years of service to his artistic life, but sadly that isn’t so. In 2006 Vickers began suffering from signs of senile dementia, nowadays characterized as Alzheimer’s disease although true Alzheimer’s generally afflicts people under the age of 60. He was eventually sent to a nursing home where he lost most of his memory, unable even to remember that he had once been one of the greatest singers in the world. He thus lived in mental darkness—as, ironically, so too did his beloved Canadian colleague Maureen Forrester—until death released him on July 10, 2015.
My only regrets are that Vickers never got the chance to sing the title role in Tannhäuser, the Götterdämmerung Siegfried, and Smetana’s Dalibor. He was offered each of them several times, but they never came to pass; and of those three, only Tannhäuser was actually scheduled for him at the Met, but he turned it down just before rehearsals began on the basis that he found the character to be “offensive” to him. Tannhäuser? A man who redeems himself in the last act? And this from a tenor who made a specialty of Siegmund, a man who had intercourse with his own sister? I tend to believe Jeannie Williams, who said in her biography that, nearing age 50, he found the tessitura of the role too high for him.
But as I said at the outset, there have been many large-voiced tenors who did some excellent work in opera, but to my mind there was only one Jon Vickers, just as there was only one Chaliapin, one Callas and one Bacquier. They were the game-changers in the opera world and their recordings will be cherished to the end of time. I can only hope that some of the readers of this monograph can listen to the recordings and watch the videos I recommend, grasp some of his greatness, and become as enamored of him and his artistry as I am.