Few opera lovers would dispute that the leading tenor roles in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Verdi’s Otello are the most fiendishly difficult roles to sing in the entire tenor repertory. Should a tenor appear today who could sing and act these three roles and prove definitive in each, the opera world would reel in disbelief. No contemporary singer is really satisfactory in any of them, let alone all three. Yet there was a tenor who was indisputably the greatest interpreter of all these roles during his career, and who sang them all within a six week period at the Metropolitan Opera in early 1974. This is the stuff of operatic legend, and Canadian tenor Jon Vickers indeed accomplished this at that time. I am in the fortunate position of being able to provide an eyewitness account of an achievement which reminds us what the much overused word “awesome” really means.
Jon Vickers’ operatic career began in the 1950’s and ended in 1987. In addition to the roles listed above, he was the leading interpreter of Florestan in Fidelio, Siegmund in Die Walkure, Samson in Saint Saens’ Samson et Dalila, as well as the title roles in Parsifal and Peter Grimes. Though he sang many other roles with great distinction, these eight parts were generally agreed to be his greatest characterizations.
In retrospect the 1973-’74 season at the Met stands out as the pinnacle of Vickers’ amazing career. His first accomplishment was to sing his already celebrated Aeneas in the first ever Met performances of Les Troyens. In three and a half weeks, he sang the impossible role eight times. Les Troyens is the absolute masterpiece of one of music’s greatest geniuses, but Berlioz’s genius unfortunately did not include a real understanding of the limitations of the human voice. The role of Aeneas requires a heroic tenor who can sing with great power in a Wagner-length role which often lies too high for the rare kind of voice needed to sing it at all. Then after singing so powerfully, the tenor must suddenly convert to a lyric tenor who can sing very high notes softly during a long sequence in Act IV before returning to the heroic mold in the final act. Berlioz was certainly a great master of composing for orchestra, but he seems to have known next to nothing about what a tenor voice is capable of. The near impossibility of a great Aeneas is one of the principal reasons this great work had to wait a hundred years to be properly heard, and why it has been heard so rarely thereafter. Vickers sang Aeneas in London in 1957 and ’58, then again under Colin Davis in 1969. It was during the 1969 run that the Davis/Vickers recording was made. It was a difficult and vocally tiring situation to record during the day while performing the work in the evening. Vickers gives a superb performance on the records, but most of us who heard him during the Met run under Rafael Kubelik feel that his New York performances surpassed the recording. I saw his Met Aeneas during the Fall, 1973 period and again in March. In between were the Tristan und Isolde and Otello.
It is sad to recall that while Vickers sang Tristan many times in many places, he sang it only twice in New York. The second of these performances was on January 30, 1974, a night still widely considered the greatest single evening ever in the “new” Met, which opened in 1966 and is still Lincoln Center’s crowning jewel. For the only time in the United States, Vickers sang Tristan that night with Birgit Nilsson, the greatest Isolde of the post World War II era. Erich Leinsdorf conducted. Like so many others, I look back on that performance as my greatest night in a theater. The sound of those two mighty voices in their first act scene and, especially, in the long second act duet remains strong in my memory all these years later, as it will for the rest of my life. Alone on stage in the final act, Vickers sang and acted in such a way as to compel disbelief that such a thing could be done and the artist still survive. I have heard many tenors take on the seemingly impossible difficulties Wagner presented in that third act, but only one of them could really sing it and overwhelm the listeners. Indeed, Vickers was probably one of only two 20th Century tenors who could do full justice to this most difficult of all operatic roles, the other of course being his great predecessor Lauritz Melchior, who sang exclusively Wagner at the Met. Descriptions of that unique January 30 performance have often appeared in print and bootleg copies were almost immediately available for those who knew where to find them.
After January 30, the next Vickers performance at the Met was the first of a run of five Otello performances on the matinee of February 9. Again, I went from Washington, D.C. to New York to continue to witness Vickers’ marathon season. This time under James Levine and with the emergency last-minute Met debut of Kiri Te Kanawa added to the excitement, Vickers again presented his classic portrayal of Verdi and Boito’s Moor just ten days after the overwhelming triumph of the Nilsson/Vickers Tristan and was again in splendid form. Dramatically, the characterization was terrifying and heartbreaking and Vickers’ singing ranged from the beautiful piano phrases of the Love Duet to sections of searing power as Otello gradually morphed from warrior to lover, then through near pathological sexual jealousy to murderer to anguished suicide.
After the Otello run ended on February 27, Vickers returned for one more Troyens on the afternoon of March 16, when I was present for my second Troyens of the season. Again, Vickers was in superb form and with that March performance completed his extraordinary feat of singing these three roles within the period between January 30 to March 16, just over six weeks. It is said that Vickers felt that his singular accomplishment was never properly acknowledged by either the Met or the press. Jeannie Williams’ fine biography of this unique artist, A Hero’s Life, is highly recommended and gives Vickers his due for this career highlight. And this was in a season when the Met didn’t even have Vickers’ most famous role as Britten’s Peter Grimes in the repertory.
Such an artist was inevitably most associated with tragic heroes, though Vickers could go so far afield as to reduce the audience to uncontrolled laughter in his unexpected comic turn as the stuttering Vasek in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, in which he even donned the costume and antics of a dancing bear! This was the role Vickers performed the only time my mother saw him, and she afterwards referred to him in the following way: “That Vickers. He’s so comical”!
Vickers offered the audience something no one else could. He was able to communicate strong emotions while hardly moving, much as Maria Callas had. Vickers’ intensity of expression often reached a level which was like a kind of religious exaltation. His vocal and dramatic power could overwhelm an audience, after which he could scale down his enormous voice to an intimate soft sound and sing with wonderful poetry and sensitivity. He was the great tragic hero of postwar opera and in 1974 he served up one of opera’s greatest seasons. All that and a dancing bear for dessert.
D.V.D.’s (Bear in mind that videotaping of operas came along too late to capture much of Vickers in his absolute vocal prime): 1) Verdi, Otello; James Levine, Metropolitan Opera; 2) Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (with Nilsson); Karl Bohm, Festival d’Orange (Kultur); 3) Wagner, Scenes From Tristan und Isolde; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Franz-Paul Decker (VAI); 4) Saint Saens, Samson et Dalila; Colin Davis, Covent Garden (Kultur); and 5) Britten, Peter Grimes; Colin Davis, Covent Garden (Kultur). I cannot recommend the Karajan films of Pagliacci, Carmen and Otello, which were pre-recorded on audio and stand as definitive proof of Karajan’s lack of talent as a film director. The Vickers acting style worked better in the theater than on video, but the above live opera house performances reveal enough evidence of his unique talents as an actor to shed more light on the audio recordings from his prime, and his singing is still splendid in most of them.