OP0155. OTELLO, recorded 1960, w.Serafin Cond. Rome Opera Ensemble; Jon Vickers, Tito Gobbi, Leonie Rysanek, etc. 2-RCA Living Stereo 63180. Slipcase Edition, w.Elaborate Libretto-Brochure. Very long out-of-print, Final Sealed Copy! - 090266318025
“The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers brought a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity to everything he sang, including legendary portrayals of Wagner’s TRISTAN, Verdi’s OTELLO, Beethoven’s Florestan and Britten’s Peter Grimes, had few rivals. Yet, even in subdued passages, whether posing questions as the clueless title character of Wagner’s PARSIFAL or singing tender phrases of a Schubert song, Mr. Vickers’ voice had penetrating body and depth. For all his power, he was a master at singing high pianissimo phrases with ethereal beauty. Making every word he sang matter was another hallmark of his artistry. Mr. Vickers was incapable of fudging a text for the sake of vocal effect, a priority he traced to his Christian upbringing, in which hymns and prayers were revered. Still, Mr. Vickers had his share of detractors, who found his singing burly and gruff.
He identified intensely with the characters he portrayed, especially misfits, like Peter Grimes, and misunderstood heroes, like Verdi’s Otello, who are outwardly strong but struggling against brutal destinies. Yet he readily admitted that in taking risks and giving his all, his singing could be inconsistent and uncontrolled. That Mr. Vickers lost himself in his roles did not surprise those who knew him. He was a volatile and enigmatic person, in many ways decent and principled, but hot-tempered and quick to jump on any perceived slight.
The soprano Birgit Nilsson, the great Isolde to his Tristan, said that Mr. Vickers ‘was almost always unhappy’, and that his ‘nerves were outside the skin, not inside the skin’, as she told Jeannie Williams, the author of JON VICKERS: A HERO’S LIFE. In her book, Ms. Williams recounts stories of Mr. Vickers bullying underlings and dressing down colleagues. When a 1986 Metropolitan Opera production of Handel’s SAMSON traveled to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Mr. Vickers insulted the conductor, Julius Rudel, during a rehearsal in front of the entire cast and orchestra, shaking Mr. Rudel so much that he offered to quit. Yet in interviews he often spoke of how his rural roots and Christian convictions had shaped his life philosophy, as he explained in a 1974 documentary for the Canadian Broadcast Company: ‘The understanding, which slowly and surely developed in me, of the necessity of human contact and an understanding of the needs of others and their problems has probably, more than anything else, given me the ability to analyze my roles, to come to grips with a score, to study a drama, to project my feelings into the life of someone I’ve never met except on a piece of paper’.
Encouraged to pursue singing seriously, he auditioned for George Lambert, a voice teacher who recruited students for the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, and was offered a scholarship, beginning with the 1950-51 academic year. While at the conservatory, Mr. Vickers met Henrietta Elsie Outerbridge, a child of missionaries who had worked in China. Hetti, as she was called, had studied medicine for several semesters and taught English and art. They married in July 1953. A devoted couple, they were ‘one of the great love stories of our time’, in the words of the soprano Teresa Stratas.
Mr. Vickers considered his professional stage début to be a performance in 1954 as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s RIGOLETTO at the Toronto Opera Festival, which in 1959 became the Canadian Opera Company. Over the next two years with the festival he sang Alfredo in LA TRAVIATA, Don José in CARMEN and other roles but preferred singing for radio and television because the work paid better.
In 1957, for his first season at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London, he sang Don José, Riccardo in BALLO IN MASCHERA and Enée (Aeneas) in Berlioz’s epic opera LES TROYENS. Mr. Vickers would later sing Enée in a new production of the opera at Covent Garden in 1969, the centennial of the composer’s death. The conductor was Colin Davis, an inspired Berlioz interpreter. During the run, the Covent Garden forces recorded the opera in a London studio, and the sessions were tense. The cast, especially Mr. Vickers, complained of the strain of recording the work while also performing it on stage. Some rough patches in Mr. Vickers’s singing come through. Still, he brought a heroic cast to the music, and the recording remains a classic.
Mr. Vickers’ first performances at the Metropolitan Opera came in early 1960, singing Canio in Leoncavallo’s PAGLIACCI, Florestan in Beethoven’s FIDELIO and Siegmund in Wagner’s WALKÜRE, all within two months. It was on the Met stage in 1967 that Mr. Vickers introduced what many consider his greatest achievement, the title role of Britten’s PETER GRIMES, conducted by Mr. Davis and directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Working with a libretto by Montagu Slater, Britten conceived the title role of the loner fisherman in an English village for his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears, who gave the first performance in London in 1945. With his ethereal voice, Pears portrayed the fisherman as an alienated dreamer, a misfit in a narrow-minded town. While yearning to be accepted, Grimes takes out his thwarted anger on homeless boys who are drafted into work as his apprentices. Britten described the opera as depicting the struggle of an individual against the masses. But many see Grimes’ persecution as a metaphor for the oppression of homosexuals. Mr. Vickers, who was, as many of his colleagues recounted, quite homophobic, could not abide such an interpretation. For him [the role of] Peter Grimes was a study in the ‘psychology of human rejection’, a view shared by Mr. Davis and Guthrie. With his powerful heldentenor voice, Mr. Vickers revealed the danger within the twisted psyche of the ostracized fisherman. His Grimes was one moment lost in reverie, the next exploding with brutality. His bleakly poignant portrayal and fearsome singing altered the public perception of the role. Though they did not like to voice their attitudes publicly, Britten and Pears were dismayed by Mr. Vickers’ Grimes. But they could not argue with success. Companies around the world mounted productions of PETER GRIMES for Mr. Vickers.
He sang more than 280 total performances at the Met, including the company premiere of LES TROYENS in 1973, and the title roles of Verdi’s OTELLO and Wagner’s PARSIFAL. For years Mr. Vickers resisted the role of Wagner’s Tristan, to the frustration of Birgit Nilsson, the great Isolde of her day, who had been searching for a powerhouse tenor who could match her in the opera. Mr. Vickers finally came through in Buenos Aires in 1971, singing Tristan to Ms. Nilsson’s Isolde. It was a triumph. They went on to sing it many times, though not as often as Ms. Nilsson had hoped. ‘I told him at the time that I waited and waited for my Tristan for 14 years’, Ms. Nilsson told THE NEW YORK TIMES, ‘as long as Jacob waited for Rachel in the Bible’. He sang the role just twice at the Met, and only one of those was with Ms. Nilsson, on 30 Jan., 1974.
Mr. Vickers lived in Toronto at the start of his career and then settled in London before returning to Canada and buying a farm about an hour’s drive from Toronto. After his retirement in 1988 he gave occasional master classes but mostly kept a low profile. He once touched on the impetus of his artistry in a graduation address in 1969 at the Royal Academy of Music in Toronto. ‘I sang because I had to’, he said. Singing, he explained, was ‘an absolute necessity, fulfilling some kind of emotional and even perhaps physical need in me’.”
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12 July, 2015
“[Jon Vickers stated] PETER GRIMES is ‘a great opera because everyone who sees GRIMES must go out of that opera with all kinds of misgivings about their attitudes to other human beings’.
Like his closest colleagues in music drama, Maria Callas, Leonie Rysanek and his compatriot Teresa Stratas, Vickers cannot be fully understood from studio recordings. But two DVDs, a Met OTELLO from 1978 and a PETER GRIMES from Covent Garden, in which the singer and the character who believed that no one could truly understand what he knew are merged, give some idea of his extraordinary presence.
During his career, Vickers’ soft singing was often dismissed as ‘crooning’ or falsetto, but it often was instead an enveloping, fully supported sound, seeming to come from all around the theater.”
- William R. Braun, OPERA NEWS, 11 July, 2015
“Tito Gobbi was an admired operatic baritone. He originally studied at Padua University for a career in law, but he eventually gave that up in favor of pursuing voice lessons in Rome with Giulio Crimi. He made his operatic début in the town of Gubbio in 1935, as Count Rodolfo in Bellini's LA SONNAMBULA. He was hired at La Scala for the 1935-1936 season as an understudy; his first appearance there was as the Herald in Ildebrando Pizzetti's ORESEOLO.
He won the international singing competition in Vienna in 1936, and as a result he began getting improved billing; he sang the rôle of Germont in LA TRAVIATA at the Teatro Reale in Rome in 1937. In the same year he sang Lelio in Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's LE DONNE CURIOSE, and continued singing secondary rôles there through 1939. He was promoted to primary rôles and in 1941 sang Ford in Verdi's FALSTAFF during a visit by the company to Berlin in 1941. Meanwhile, in a guest appearance at Rieti he first sang the rôle of Scarpia in Puccini's TOSCA in 1940. This was to become his best-known part.
Gobbi made his La Scala début in a major rôle in 1942 as Belcore in L'ELISIR D'AMORE The performance that made him famous, however, was as Wozzeck in the first Italian performance of Alban Berg's opera in Rome in November, 1942. Fighting raged throughout Italy following the Allied invasions there in 1943, interrupting his career. After the war he began to include international appearances. He first appeared in Stockholm in 1947 as Rigoletto; in 1948 he went to Covent Garden in concerts and to San Francisco to début as Figaro in Rossini's BARBER OF SEVILLE. His London operatic début was at Covent Garden as Belcore when the La Scala Company toured there. He appeared in Chicago in 1954 as Rossini's Figaro, and débuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Scarpia, 13 January, 1956. He sang Don Giovanni in Salzburg in 1952 under von Karajan's direction.
He took up producing as well, often at Chicago, where he made regular appearances, and producing opera became an ever more important part of his career after 1965, which is when he produced a performance starring himself in the title rôle of Verdi's SIMON BOCCANEGRA in London.
Gobbi was an excellent actor, had a high degree of musicianship and intelligence, had a flexible, rich, but not large baritone voice, and was at home in a wide variety of parts. He also appeared in 26 movies. He was the brother-in-law of another eminent singer, Boris Christoff. Gobbi retired from the operatic stage in 1979. He published an autobiography (TITO GOBBI: MY LIFE, 1979) and TITO GOBBI AND HIS WORLD OF ITALIAN OPERA (1984). He left a significant legacy of recorded performances, mainly made in the 1950s and 1960s.”
- Joseph Stevenson, allmusic.com