Monday 13 July 2015

Memories of Jon Vickers

Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in 1975
Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in 1975
I first saw the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015) in November 1980 at Covent Garden in a revival of the venerable 1955 Peter Potter/Georges Wakhevitch production of Verdi's Otello (revived by Ande Anderson) a performance which came about, if memory serves me correctly, because Jon Vicker's declined to sing the title role in a new production of Wagner's Tannhauser on moral grounds. I was delighted, because to encounter Jon Vicker's earth shattering Otello was a miracle in itself. Despite the extreme age and darkness of the production, Vickers seemed to inhabit it and bring it to life. For Otello I had travelled down to London from Scotland, but a move to London in the following year meant that I caught all of Vickers' late performances at Covent Garden.

He was a tenor that I came to appreciate for the concentrated intensity of his performances, the way he inhabited a role. By the time I came to see him he had developed a number of vocal and physical mannerisms, but these were used mainly in the furtherance of character development. One I particularly remember was the way he expressed emotion by heaving his shoulders!

Of his Canio in revival of the 1959 Zefirelli Pagliacci and Florestan (with Linda Esther Gray in the title role) Fidelio in a revival of the 1961 Otto Klemperer production, I preserve only hazy memories of strongly delineated performances. But the Tristan und Isolde of 1982 remains strongly in my memory. This was a period when Covent Garden was struggling with budgets and there were quite a few revivals of dim and distant productions (I think the oldest was the Elektra from 1953 which was revived in 1988), often hastily put on. Tristan und Isolde was produced by Peter Hall in 1971, and this was its last outing. Revived by Jeremy Sutcliffe, you got the impression that the two 'great beasts', Jon Vickers and Gwynneth Jones, had simply been ushered onto the stage and left to get on with it. The results were mesmerising from the start, even though the production itself was dark and dim. The tension between the two in Act One was palpable and the performance of this act is one of the most thrillingly gripping that I have experienced.

But Vickers did get new productions too. He made a passionate, rather Old Testament prophet Samson in  Elijah Moshinsky's 1981 production of Samson et Dalila with designs by Sidney Nolan.
And I saw Jon Vickers twice as Peter Grimes in the Elijah Moshinsky production. The last time was in 1984 when Bernard Haitink conducted his first Peter Grimes with Helen Harper coming out of retirement to sing Ellen Orford. It was a magical evening. Never having seen Peter Pears in the role (the only role I saw Pears in was as Aschenbach in Death in Venice), for me Vickers has always remained the embodiment of Peter Grimes. The way he created the character vocally and physically (Vickers was a big man and his characters always had great physicality) was completely engrossing, and he conveyed a real sense of madness in The Great Bear and in the final scenes.

There was one final performance, Handel's Samson directed by Elijah Moshinsky in 1985 (when Vickers was nearly 60). It was a final great incarnation, but frankly by this stage his voice could no longer cope with the passage-work which Handel required and the detail was approximate. But overall my impression is of a truly great artist whose work I was lucky enough to encounter sufficiently to be able to come to appreciate. He had a big open sound, which could be thrilling but was subtle too, with a way of inhabiting characters which brought out the intensity of their emotional life.

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