The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers has died, following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease: he was 88. Celebrated for his intense performances of the Heldentenor repertoire, Vickers was a major figure on the world’s stages for over three decades.
Born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Vickers studied at Canada’s Royal Conservatory on a scholarship. He joined the company of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1957. Early roles here included Riccardo in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. In 1958 he sang Giasone opposite Maria Callas’s Medea in Cherubini’s opera in Dallas (a live recording exists). He made his Bayreuth debut the same year as Siegmund, a role he very much made his own, and in 1964 he returned as Parsifal. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1960 as Canio (Pagliacci): in all he would sing 277 performances at the New York house in 17 roles (including Don José, Radames, Erik, Herman, Samson, Otello, Peter Grimes, Enée and Parsifal) over 22 seasons.
His recorded legacy was extensive including the tenor part for Sir Thomas Beecham’s Messiah ('You’re damn good, Vickers,’ shouted Sir Thomas as the tapes ran - thereby ruining the take!) as well as key roles in his repertoire: Florestan, Tristan, Siegmund and Otello (all with Herbert von Karajan, who was a great admirer), Enée (Berlioz's The Trojans) for Sir Colin Davis with whom he also recorded Peter Grimes. Benjamin Britten was said not to have cared for Vickers’s assumption of the role, maybe finding the intensity and near-psychotic nature of the character too much. Reviewing the recording in Gramophone in March 1979, Edward Greenfield commented that ‘In one vital, if rather obvious respect, the Grimes of Vickers is dramatically more convincing than that of Pears, for Sir Peter always remains an intellectual (as it seems) among village folk. Putting it crudely, with him Grimes is not so recognizably a rough fisherman of local stock, rather a fish-out-of-water who if not a middle-class intruder ought to have been. Vickers, as might have been expected, gives us a portrait of just such a rough fisherman, and though in places that characterization leads him to introduce a degree of roughness in the tone and some deliberately under-the-note attack, the earthiness of the character is inescapable . . It is he as much as Davis, I suspect, who dictates the extremely slow tempi for many of the important solos.’
Vickers also made a fine recitalist, leaving a searing recording of Schubert’s Winterreise which divided critical opinion. In a superb ‘Reputations' article in November 2004, Richard Osborne wrote that ‘The Vickers voice was instantly recognisable; no one sounded remotely like him. Such comparisons as were made, were made with Caruso. "This is marvellous, perhaps the most Caruso-like singing . . . on disc since the death of Caruso," wrote Andrew Porter of Vickers's debut recital, "Italian Opera Arias". John Steane pursued the comparison in The Grand Tradition [Timber Press: 1993]. "The kind of sound he will make ... at the top of the stave is something other tenors cannot do just as, though in a different way, Caruso had a quality around that part of the voice unlike anybody else)." Of Vickers's singing of "Cielo e mar" on that same recital disc, Steane observed: "It is the work of a big singer: voice, technique and spirit all proportionate".'