Jon Vickers, a leading Metropolitan tenor for more than twenty-five seasons, died last summer, on July 10. Vickers is remembered for such diverse roles as the comic, stuttering Vasek in The Bartered Bride, the towering Aeneas in Les Troyens, a Samson who toppled the temple as much with the force of his voice as with the restored strength of his arms, Laca in Jenufa, quick to anger, transcendent in forgiveness. Audiences and critics may have carped about Vickers’s tendency to hug the underside of the pitch and to croon at pianissimo. They nonetheless agreed about the power, clarity, and individuality of his timbre, the sensitivity of his phrasing, the force of his personality, and most importantly, the depth of his understanding of the musical and dramatic dimensions of his roles. His Siegmund expressed the fullest measure of passion, his Otello and Canio vented unfathomable rage.
And then there are the two characters that he made singularly his own, his incomparable Florestan and Peter Grimes, roles for which he holds the house records. With Leonie Rysanek, then with Hildegard Behrens, Vickers gave Fidelio a currency in the repertoire that it had never before enjoyed in New York. At the start of Act II, Florestan, imprisoned in a dark dungeon for his opposition to despotic rule, laments his loss of freedom. Suddenly, a vision of his beloved wife fills him with hope. The tenor easily surmounts the difficulties of the aria and makes palpable the character’s despair, then his ecstasy.
In the final scene of Peter Grimes the eponymous hero, cast out by his community, suspected of having been responsible for the death of his two apprentices, tormented by his own demons, delirious, recalls the events that have brought him to the verge of suicide. Accompanied only sporadically by a foghorn and an offstage chorus, it is Vickers, now keening in legato phrases, now issuing brief interjections, who finds a universal message in the confusion and anger of the poor fisherman.
It is Tristan that should have been a third role in the Vickers pantheon. Alas, he sang it only twice with the company. In 1973-74, he was announced for an eight-performance run of Wagner’s opera. When the scheduled soprano bowed out, Vickers first refused to sing with her replacement, changed his mind for the broadcast, and finally appeared opposite the greatest Isolde of her generation, Birgit Nilsson. That single smashing evening told Met audiences how otherwise impoverished were the contemporary Wagnerian ranks. Regrettably, by reason of indisposition and of the peripatetic life of the opera singer in the 1970s, the voices of Vickers and Nilsson twined only once in the “Liebesnacht” in New York. Here they are in performance from Vienna.
A small number of dramatic tenors have assumed some of the Vickers roles with great distinction and success, notably Plácido Domingo and Jonas Kaufmann. But Florestan and Peter Grimes still belong to him.