Now this is great singing.
In the 1993 notes that accompany this re-issue of the one recital record Jon Vickers ever made, Vickers says,
At the time of the Italian Arias recording the field of opera was a totally different world than today. One sought to prove oneself worthy of association with the opera houses, general administartors, conductors, producers and singers one admired – even was in awe of. There was a humbling consciousness of the great history of places like the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, La Scala, Bayreuth, Vienna and Salzburg. Emphasis was upon delving as deeply as possible into the psychological depths of the text illuminated by the genius of the composer’s music. To dare to indulge any particular personal ability was to invite derision from colleagues and thunderous disapproval by public and press alike as being in bad taste and imposing of oneself upon a great work of art.
To be honest, I’ve listened to plenty of live performances from those days when bad taste and personal indulgence brings the house down, but his statement does give you a snapshot into the way the man worked, of his seriousness and dedication to his art.
This recital disc was recorded at the same time as his first recording of Otello under Tullio Serafin, when his only Wagnerian role was Siegmund, and you were more likely to hear him as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, Radames, Canio or Don Carlo. Later of course he want on to tackle Tristan and Parsifal, though he never sang Siegfried, and he dropped out of scheduled performances of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden, due to his religious scruples, saying he could not empathise with the character and that, in any case, the opera was blasphemous in character.
First impressions when listening to this disc are of the sheer size of the voice, and the power – a power that can be reined back to a merest pianissimo, then unleashed at will, like an organist pulling out all the stops. The other is intensity. Whether singing gently or loudly, there is a concentration and intensity that makes each short aria into a mini monodrama, and an ability to focus in on the meaning of each word and note. Nothing is taken for granted, nothing thrown away.
From a purely vocal point of view, it was still a very beautiful instrument back in 1961, and an aria like Cielo e mar is sung not only with golden tone, but with a true sense of wonder, and a way of pulling in and out of full voice that never destroys the long legato line.
Where many Italian tenors will add extraneous sobs and aspirates to indicate emotion, particularly in an aria like Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana, Vickers achieves an even deeper vein of emotion by never straying from the written notes, but simply (as if it was simple) intensifying his sound. In this he ressembles Callas, whom he revered so much having been Giasone to her Medea on many occasions.
One of the stand out tracks on this recital for me is Chénier’s Un di all’azzurro spazio delivered with mounting passion, but also somehow giving us a sense of the intellectual in the man. Canio suffers like no other, and yet he doesn’t have to break down in sobs at the end to make us feel it. His Otello developed into one of the towering creations of his, or any other, age, but even here, with the arias taken out of context, he conveys all the man’s pain and suffering.
Listening to this recital today at a distance of some years has been a peculiarly emotional experience. Jon Vickers was, and remains, unique, and we are unlikely to hear his ilk again.