OP2245. MEDEA (Cherubini), Live Performance, 11 Dec., 1961, w.Schippers Cond. La Scala Ensemble; Maria Callas, Jon Vickers, Giulietta Simionato, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Ivana Tosini, etc. (E.U.) 2-Myto 00292. - 0801439902923
“Giulietta Simionato was the greatest Italian mezzo-soprano of her era, an artist whose singular career was shaped as much by her innate elegance as by her extraordinary musical and dramatic gifts. In an era before opera singers were pigeonholed as ‘specialists’, Simionato constructed a personal repertoire that stretched from the eighteenth-century graces of Mozart, Gluck and Cimarosa to the bel canto heroines (and heroes) of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini to the formidable ladies of Verdi, Mascagni, Ponchielli and Cilèa. Today, it would be highly unlikely for an impresario to cast the same artist as Cherubino and Amneris, but Simionato sang them both - as well as Carmen, Octavian, Mignon, Berlioz's Didon, Valentine in LES HUGUENOTS and nearly one hundred other rôles.
Simionato's voice, brilliant in the upper register and luminous in mid-range, was not so large as those of her Italian contemporaries, but her arresting combination of verbal clarity and emotional honesty made her one of the most charismatic artists to emerge on the international scene in the 1950s. She was a petite woman, but her superb figure and perfect posture - to say nothing of the very high-heeled shoes she favored both on- and offstage - made her seem statuesque. Simionato's characterizations, unfailingly bold yet never broad, were charged with enormous compassion: audiences succumbed as much to her generous spirit as to the sheer beauty of her sound.
Born in Forlì, in Romagna, Simionato made her stage début at seventeen, in a musical comedy at the Teatro Sociale in Rovigo, and studied voice with Guido Palumbi in Padua. After a few professional appearances in small rôles, she won a singing competition sponsored by the Maggio Musicale that brought her a contract for her Florence début, in the world premiere of Pizzetti's ORSÈOLO, in 1935. The following year, Simionato began her professional association with La Scala, as a Flowermaiden in PARSIFAL. For the better part of the following decade, she was chiefly confined to comprimario rôles in Milan, a situation in part due to the seniority (and political connections) of other mezzos on the La Scala roster, such as Gianna Pederzini and Cloe Elmo. Simionato's luck began to change after she acquired new management and won good notices as Dorabella in Geneva, Octavian in Trieste and Cherubino at the Edinburgh Festival. A particularly successful 1947 engagement in Genoa as Thomas' Mignon, a character to which she was ideally suited, brought an invitation to repeat the rôle at La Scala. Simionato made an enormous hit, and her status as a major star was assured.
Simionato was active at all the principal theaters in Italy but remained especially beloved at La Scala, where her legendary triumphs included Rubria in Boito's NERONE under Toscanini (1948); Giovanna to Maria Callas' Anna Bolena (1957); Didon in the La Scala premiere of LES TROYENS (1957); Valentine in LES HUGUENOTS (1962); and Arsace to Joan Sutherland's Semiramide (1962). She appeared regularly at Salzburg, where she made memorable appearances as Orfeo (1959) and Azucena (1962) under Karajan's baton, and in Vienna, Paris, Mexico City and London, where her Covent Garden appearances included Adalgisa to Callas' Norma (1953) and Azucena in Luchino Visconti's staging of IL TROVATORE (1964).
Simionato made her U.S. opera début in 1953, as Charlotte to Cesare Valletti's Werther, at San Francisco Opera. San Francisco also heard Simionato as Rosina and as Marina in BORIS GODUNOV (in Italian) during her first SFO season, but she did not sing with the company again until 1962, when she returned as Azucena, Santuzza and Mistress Quickly.
Like many of the leading Italian artists of her generation, Simionato considered her artistic home in the U.S. to be Lyric Opera of Chicago (then known as Lyric Theatre of Chicago), where she bowed in 1954, as Adalgisa to Callas' Norma. Simionato sang thirteen rôles in her six seasons with the company, allowing Chicago to hear a more generous sampling of her great specialties than any other North American city. In October 1957, immediately after making her New York début as Giovanna in an American Opera Society concert of ANNA BOLENA, Simionato traveled to Chicago, where she sang two performances each of MIGNON, Santuzza, Laura in LA GIOCONDA, Cherubino and the Princesse de Bouillon in ADRIANA LECOUVREUR for Lyric Opera, all within the span of a month. Six days after her final Chicago ADRIANA - during which she injured her ankle and sang Act III seated in an improvised wheelchair - Simionato made another significant U.S. début, when she appeared in L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI during the inaugural season of Dallas Civic Opera. Two weeks after her final Dallas ITALIANA (on 24 November), Simionato opened the La Scala season, as Ulrica in a brand-new UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. Such a rigorous schedule was business as usual for the fiercely disciplined Simionato, who typically sang eighty performances a year during the 1950s - and rarely canceled.
In 1954, the Met announced that Simionato would make her company début that season, as Orfeo, but she canceled her scheduled appearances, ceding the run of Gluck's opera to Risë Stevens. Simionato finally arrived at the Met on the opening night of the 1959–60 season, when she was Azucena in a new TROVATORE, directed by Herbert Graf. Despite her acclaim from the New York press and a significant number of devoted fans in Manhattan, Simionato sang just twenty-eight performances in four seasons with the Met - twelve as Amneris, six as Azucena, five as Santuzza and two as Rosina in BARBIERE, plus three 1965 tour performances of SAMSON ET DALILA, in which she sang Dalila in Italian, while the rest of the cast sang in French. The SAMSON presented during the 1965 spring tour's stop in Detroit marked Simionato's final Met performance and her final opera performance in the U.S.
The following season, when her second marriage, to the celebrated Italian physician Cesare Frugoni, was about to take place, Simionato decided to retire from the opera stage. She chose the thirtieth anniversary of her La Scala début – 6 February, 1966 - as the date. When she learned that the opera on the Scala schedule that night was Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, Simionato learned the soprano rôle of Servilia in a few days and did a single performance of the opera at Piccola Scala. She did not sing in public again, save for a 1979 gala in honor of Karl Böhm, the maestro who had paced her first Cherubino, some thirty-two years earlier; in tribute to him, Simionato sang ‘Non so più’, transposed down an octave. Simionato enjoyed a long and comfortable retirement, frequently serving as a competition adjudicator and relishing the opportunity to comment on the state of singing in the years after she left the stage. After Frugoni's death, in 1978, Simionato married industrialist Florio De Angeli, who died in 1996.
Thanks to the impressive number of recordings she made during her great years, Simionato's artistry remains present and persuasive. Other artists may have filled Verdi with more sheer power or charged Rossini with a higher degree of virtuosity, but more than seventy-five years after her début, Simionato still sounds fresh and modern and natural in every measure. One cannot resist the spontaneity of her phrasing, the unerring simplicity with which she weights every word and reveals her profound connection to her music. It is a gift that will always set her apart from her rivals - if one chooses to accept that she had any.”
- F. Paul Driscoll, OPERA NEWS, May, 2010
“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