Remembering Tenor Jon Vickers

Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)
Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

 

The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who brought “a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity” to some of opera’s most powerful roles, passed away on Friday following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.

After studying at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Vickers rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 60s with appearances at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. His recordings suggest that he had an extraordinary ability to lose himself in the character and dramatically “go for broke.” His personality was reportedly volatile and quick-tempered. During a 1975 Dallas Opera performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Vickers broke character to chastise the audience for coughing. You can hear a recording of the incident here.

Here is an excerpt from Vickers’ 1960 recording of Verdi’s Otello with the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The haunting Dio! mi potevi scagliar is from the third act of Otello. The jealous Otello is losing his grip on reality, believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio. Following her exit from the room, he is left alone to ask God, “Why have you afflicted me in this manner?”

This late-Verdi score, which premiered in 1887 (over 15 years after Aida), integrates vocal lines and orchestra in a remarkable way. Following a long chromatic descent into Hell, we hear a numb, obsessively repeated string motive as Otello enters a dark inner world of contemplation:

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A La Bohème Masterclass

51af882584fdd556b9e8dc86894435dcOpera, with its rich blend of music, drama and staging, is one of the most complex art forms on the planet. If you’ve ever been curious about the myriad of subtle details that singers encounter as they bring an opera scene to life, watch the clip below from a young artists’ workshop at London’s Royal Opera House. Conductor Sir Mark Elder coaches soprano Susana Gaspar and tenor Michel de Souza in Marcello and Mimì’s duet from Act 3 of Puccini’s lushly romantic La Bohème. Along the way, we gain insight into Puccini’s music.

La Bohème doesn’t open with an overture. Instead, a sudden, exhilarating burst of energy launches us into the first scene set in Marcello and Rodolfo’s modest and chilly flat. As Elder mentions, this music originated in Puccini’s student composition (and Milan Conservatory thesis), Capriccio sinfonicoThe first Act culminates with the intimate duet, O soave fanciulla, sung here by Teresa Stratas and José Carreras in a 1982 Met production.

Watching great singers up close is a reminder that opera singing, by nature, is an athletic endeavor. A tremendous physical effort is made to look easy. In this respect, there’s a side of opera that is pure sport. But, in this masterclass, Mark Elder takes us beyond the mechanics and challenges us to hear the small details that make the drama of La Bohème come alive:

How to Sing Rossini

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Conductor Sir Mark Elder shares some interesting insights on the music of Rossini in this recent masterclass at London’s Royal Opera House. Elder coaches mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, who sings Rosina’s cavatina, “Una voce poco fa,” from Act 1, scene II of The Barber of Seville. 

According to Elder, rhythm is the key element of Rossini’s music. The energy of the rhythmic motor keeps the music alive and infuses it with style. Pulse equals life. Elder shows how the combination of elegance, strength and boldness in the introduction instantly establishes Rosina’s character for the audience, before a note is sung.

“Una voce poco fa” is about subtly ruthless determination and seduction. Rosina is confined in the house of the elderly Dr. Bartolo, whom she is supposed to marry. Count Almaviva serenades her from the public square below. Rosina hears only his voice, and falls in love. The Count has disguised himself as Lindoro, a poor student. He wants to be sure that Rosina doesn’t marry him for his money. Read the full synopsis here.

Here are Rosina’s final lines:

Yes, Lindoro will be mine
I’ve swore it, I’ll win.
I let be ruled, I let be guided
I’m obedient, sweet, loving
I let be ruled, I let be guided
But if they touch where my weak spot is
I’ll be a viper and a hundred traps
before giving up I’ll make them fall

Here is a concert performance from 1997 featuring Elder and Slovak coloratura soprano Edita Gruberová:

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