OP3281. PETER GRIMES, Live Performance, 5 April, 1969, w. Colin Davis Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Jon Vickers, Lucine Amara, Geraint Evans, Jean Madeira, Lili Chookasian, Paul Plishka, etc. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-720.
“Just as there are people who could talk about seeing Caruso’s Canio or Chaliapin’s Boris, we can say we saw Vickers’ Grimes. It is that powerful in the theatre, and it comes across fully on these discs. Yet when Colin Davis led Vickers at the Royal Opera Covent Garden with the composer in attendance, Britten famously walked out before the performance was over. One has to examine oneself carefully when disagreeing with a composer about the interpretation of one of his masterpieces. Britten wrote the role for his partner, Peter Pears, a tenor with a different kind of voice and a different temperament. The suppressed anger and violence is much deeper under the surface in Pears’ performance, and clearly Britten preferred that approach. But I know I am not alone in finding Vickers’ harsher, more violent portrayal persuasive and not at all out of character with the music. Britten described the opera as ‘a subject very close to my heart - the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual’. Taking him at his word, Vickers’ portrayal seems eminently justifiable.
Vickers and Colin Davis made a Philips recording of the opera in 1978, reviewed enthusiastically by Joel Kasow in FANFARE 22:5, but this 1969 performance from the Met is more potent. Davis is more explosive in his conducting, and Vickers is a bit more extreme in his portrayal. The fact that this is a live staged performance surely is responsible for the fire at its center. Davis conducts with a stronger rhythmic pulse than on the Philips recording; the orchestral playing has an incisiveness that underlines the drama and tension at the opera’s core. Vickers was capable of a remarkable range of vocal colors, essential to conveying a character as complex as Grimes. There are moments of warmth and tenderness in the character, and they are necessary to offset Grimes’ dominant brutish behavior elsewhere. Vickers’ towering achievement is to assemble these contrasts into a unified, overwhelmingly vivid characterization.
Geraint Evans is extremely sympathetic as the wise, understanding Captain Balstrode, a symbol of tolerance in a community that treats Grimes with suspicious intolerance. Lucine Amara’s Ellen is beautifully sung, although there have been performers who display more of the inner strength that allows the schoolmistress to stand by Grimes despite the town’s growing hostility. Amara does let go more intensely in the final act, and the scenes with her and Balstrode are very moving. The remainder of the cast is first rate; clearly this is a production in which the Met invested all of its resources. Even the small roles are brilliantly cast, with the likes of Jean Madeira (Mrs. Sedley), Lili Chookasian (Auntie), Paul Plishka (Hobson), and Raymond Michalski (Swallow).
Although Met broadcasts were monaural until 1973, which places this monaural release at a disadvantage against the Philips recording, I still find a greater overall impact in the performance, as heard here in very clean and open mono sound. As usual, St. Laurent Studio offers no notes or libretto, but we get full documentation of cast and performance date and a flawless transfer from what was a good source. St. Laurent Studio recordings are available at Norbeck, Peters, & Ford www.norpete.com).”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“[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
"During my years of regular opera attendance, 1962-2015, I heard many great singers and stage artists of that period. Among my fondest memories are Regine Crespin, Renata Scotto, Magda Olivero, Galina Vishnevskaya, Franco Corelli, Inge Borkh and Jon Vickers. In my vivid memory, above all of them stands Vickers. His Florestan was uniquely glorious and compelling. I heard and saw it originally under Bohm, then finally under Tennstedt. The combination of Vickers and Tennstedt was riveting and unforgettable. Vickers’ Aeneas was magnificent; his piannissimi in LES TROYENS were treasurable. His appearances in PARSIFAL, WALKURE, FIDELIO, FLIEGENDE HOLLANDER, OTELLO, AIDA, FORZA, PAGLIACCI, JENUFA, PIQUE DAME, PRODANA NEVESTA, CARMEN and SAMSON ET DALILA also were occasions to behold. But Vickers’ Peter Grimes stands entirely apart. I heard most of his performances in this role at the Met, even when they were eventually conducted by Ehrling. But his performances of Grimes under Colin Davis were in a class by themselves. Never have I been so shaken as I was during these events. And I was not alone in this respect. Every Vickers Grimes performance became punctuated by visceral and audible outbursts by members of the otherwise staid Met audiences. Vickers’ presence was beyond all expectations of those who were not familiar with his charisma and, in the extraordinary case of this Wagnerian Heldentenor, his ravishing piannisimi which haunted the farthest reaches of the house. This PETER GRIMES is a glorious performance in spectacular sound and an occasion which we are proud to have made possible for Yves St Laurent to issue!"
- J. R. Peters
“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