John Steane logs on to explore the soprano's life and legacy
A new web-site has been set up by the singer’s son, Jonathan Crown, and edited by the music-critic Michael White. And there she is: Jennifer Vyvyan, dates, career, photographs, voice. It’s a rather attenuated version of the voice that comes from the computer screen, but it’s unmistakably hers. She’s there all right, and I, to whom this is still all something of a miracle, can report the wonder of it.
Her voice was one of the most distinctive. "Beautiful" is not the first word that comes to mind though a kind of beauty was certainly an element. Clear, even, true, fluid, secure: it was all of those. And something more elusive. It was a voice with knowledge in it. Contrast it with Joan Sutherland’s – they were contemporaries, careers and repertoire sometimes overlapping. If Sutherland’s tone was warm and easeful, a voice for a major key, Vyvyan’s rather discouraged relaxation; it was bright, with a slight edge to it, a squeeze of lemon-juice rather than sugar and cream. And – but this may have come by association – there was a touch of anxiety: not, emphatically not, arising from any uncertainty about voice or technique but a token of humanity.
The association is, of course, with The Turn of the Screw. The role of the Governess was her part: she "created" it in the world-premiere at Venice, she sang it again in the first British performances and in the first recording. For all who know that recording (1955, Britten conducting) hers is the voice "heard" whenever the Governess’s phrases come to mind, no matter who may be singing them at the time. “Very soon I shall know”, “Who is it, who?”, “Lost in my labyrinth”, “What have we done between us?”: from first to last, the phrases are inseparable from this one voice.
That is there on the web-site too, along with photographs (Peter Pears in his unbecoming red wig, David Hemmings perhaps not everybody’s idea of the lovely boy). Reviews of the first night (the Italians, critics and public, not knowing quite what to make of it), early British press cuttings (the popular press, which took some interest in such things in those days, seized on rumours of a jinx on the ghost-haunted opera): these too. From the early days of her career, when she first joined the English Opera Group, it was clear that Vyvyan had the kind of soprano voice (and musical background) that best suited Britten. He would say that he normally disliked what people called “a beautiful voice”, and hers was a voice which, while possessing certain beautiful qualities, was essentially a voice of character, a voice for the mind.