OP0208. LES TROYENS (Berlioz), recorded 1969, w.Colin Davis Cond. Royal Opera Ensemble; Jon Vickers, Josephine Veasey, Berit Lindholm, Peter Glossop, Roger Soyer, Ian Partridge, Raimund Henricx, etc. (Germany) 4-Philips 416 432, Boxed Set Edition w.elaboprate 316pp. libretto-brochure. Long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 028941643223
“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
“Josephine Veasey established a career as one of England's leading mezzo-sopranos in the 1960s. She made her debut as a soloist at Covent Garden in 1955 as the Shepherd Boy in Wagner's TANNHÄUSER, moving on to such dramatic mezzo roles as Preziosilla in Verdi's LA FORZA DEL DESTINO and the title role of Bizet's CARMEN. Early in the 1960s Georg Solti recommended that she learn Wagnerian roles. In 1964 she sang her first portrayal of Fricka (in both RHEINGOLD and WALKÜRE) and also became notable for her portrayal of Dido in Berlioz's LES TROYENS, Brangäne in TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, Octavian in Strauss' ROSENKAVALIER, and Herodias in Strauss' SALOME.
Meanwhile, the versatile singer maintained her French and Italian repertory, including Charlotte in WERTHER, Marguerite in Berlioz's concert work LA DAMNATION DE FAUST, and Edoli in Verdi's DON CARLOS. In 1972 and 1973, Colin Davis, by then director of Covent Garden, placed her in alternating casts for LES TROYENS as both Dido and Cassandra. In 1976 she sang the role of The Emperor in the world premiere of Henze's WE COME TO THE RIVER. She had the reputation of being a ringing mezzo with the power to project over heavy orchestration, and she was known as a serious actress. Veasey is well represented on recordings.”
- Joseph Stevenson, allmusic.com
“Sir Colin Davis, the magisterial conductor whose career with the London Symphony Orchestra spanned over half a century had always dreamed of being a conductor, [but] his rise in the profession was not swift. His skill on the piano was wanting, as was, he admitted, his desire to play it. He was appointed as assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony in 1957 after three attempts for the job. By his own admission, he was hot-headed and short-tempered in his younger years, and his relationships with musicians and musical organizations early in his career were often tempestuous. Though he made his début with the London Symphony in 1959, it would be decades before he truly made his mark. In 1965, the London Symphony turned him down as chief conductor. For the next several years, first as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony, then as music director for the Royal Opera House, his career advanced slowly.
It was not until 1992, with his masterful interpretation of the Sibelius cycle with the London Symphony, that his authority became apparent and his fame began to spread. Three years later, he was made principal conductor of the London Symphony, a position he held until 2006, when Valery Gergiev took his place. His mark on the institution was indelible. He championed Sibelius and Berlioz, whose major works he conducted in full with the London Symphony in 1999 and 2000. He also revived Mozart as a symphonic mainstay after a long absence. In 1997, he took the London Symphony to New York to conduct its first residency at Lincoln Center. He was principal guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1998 to 2003. He received two Grammy awards for his recording of Berlioz’s LES TROYENS with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2002, and another in 2006 for Verdi’s FALSTAFF.
Toward the end of his life, Sir Colin had become something of a sage in the world of classical music, wont to puff on his pipe and knit in quiet introspection. ‘Conductors’, he once said in an interview with THE NEW YORK TIMES, ‘are paid to think, and that’s what the job should be about: sitting at home thinking, what is this piece? How can I set it up to sound its best and live on, because there’s nothing to replace it with just yet? This is what absorbs the mind. Especially in old age’.”
- Michael Schwirtz, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 14 April, 2013