Four Operatic Portraits: Handel, Verdi, Britten & Beethoven

Jon Vickers; Ottawa National Arts Centre Orchestra/Decker (VAI DVDVAI4219)

Release Date: November 2007 2 stars

Jon Vickers: Opera ScenesThe four operatic portraits on this DVD were taped in 1984 when Jon Vickers was close to sixty years old. Accompanied by the Ottawa National Arts Centre Orchestra, it was made for Canadian television, and presents the audience of the tenor's native land with a glimpse of what he had been thrilling foreign audiences with, largely in New York and London, for the preceding thirty years. Although any television special made for a specific artist in his home country is likely to be partisan, this one is particularly obsequious towards Vickers. The introduction describes him as 'the world's leading tenor', and whilst Vickers certainly was, and remains, a significant artist, I have yet to meet an opera buff who would describe him in those terms.

The introduction also states that the programme was chosen in order to challenge the audience since, we are reminded, Vickers was such an intelligent musician and a gifted actor, as well as a great singer. Extravagant claims are made, but the whole fails to live up to what is promised. The announcer seems quite excited that the excerpts are presented fully staged, but apart from a bed and some extraneous furniture in the scene from Verdi's Otello, this extends to little more than costumes and, in the case of the piece from Handel's Samson, some shackles. Nothing else is needed for Vickers to be compelling on the stage, but the presentation does feel rather provincial.

On first launching into the recitative before 'Total eclipse' from Samson, Vickers proves himself to be far better vocally preserved than I had been expecting, this late into his career, which had centred on some of the most strenuous roles in the tenor repertoire. The timbre is rich and full throughout the range and the expressive palette comprises every dynamic from a floated pianissimo to a thrillingly heroic fortissimo. However, the artistic approach to the Handel is completely unreconstructed. Vickers is utterly oblivious to the informed baroque performance practice movement rapidly gathering pace in the early 1980s, and the result is a very laboured, lumpen rendition of the scene. The whole recitative is done in an extremely expansive, weighty manner, as if every single subordinate clause in the text imparts information of equally profound import.

Although a great deal of thought appears to have gone into each and every line and word, the result is the opposite of what had presumably been intended, since nothing, in the end, is emphasised above anything else. This approach then carries through into the aria. The conductor, Franz-Paul Decker, sets an appropriate pace in the orchestral introduction, but Vickers comes in at his own, far slower tempo, and reduces it more and more throughout the piece. One has to admire his breath control, and the singing itself in this number is awesome. But with turgid interpretations like this, it does not surprise me in the least that Handel was not in vogue in the way his music is today.

The Handel is followed with the final scene from Otello. Vickers was one of the most famous interpreters of this pinnacle of the Italian tenor repertoire, but I think it is fair to say that there were other tenors performing it at the same time as he was who could sing it better. Vickers's supremacy in the role stemmed from his riveting dramatic gifts which, rather like the case of Maria Callas, were strong enough to allow the audience to overlook some vocal shortcomings. In the performance in this telecast, Vickers is let down by the slightly perfunctory set, poor costumes, mediocre colleagues, and the fact that we have not been able to see him lead up to this point in the opera.

Out of context, the murderous Otello seems rather hammy. Again, there is a great deal of attention paid to the text, but the results border on the eccentric, particularly in the case of the rather camp rolled Rs. The approach seems altogether too considered and intellectual to the point of pomposity. There is very little sense of an instinctive artist at work. Vocally, although there are of course some thrilling sounds, there is also some uncomfortable sounding shouting. Vickers is not the only interpreter of this role to adopt this kind of vocality for this scene, and perhaps it lends the situation a greater realism and immediacy than a more conventionally delivered performance does, but for me, it detracts from the drama rather than adds to it.

Florestan's great scene from Act II of Beethoven's Fidelio is next, and it is at this point that Vickers begins to betray the strain he had been putting his voice under in his career to date. For fans of this artist, there will be much to admire in terms of phrasing and dramatic intensity. But the difficulty which Vickers has with Beethoven's unsympathetic vocal writing is all too apparent, particularly in the murderous tessitura of the closing fast section.

Although he doesn't quite recover the vocal authority he had in the Handel, the fourth operatic portrait, from Britten's Peter Grimes sees Vickers back on form in what must have been the perfect role for him. Vocally, he is far more secure than he was in either the Verdi or the Beethoven, and it is this scene that shows what he was capable of as an actor. He succeeds in entering the mental state of Grimes and convinces utterly, in a way that was not achieved in the Otello excerpt. The support he receives from the conductor and orchestra is stronger too than hitherto in the programme, and the offstage chorus work is very good, creating just the atmosphere Vickers needs for his moving portrayal.

The DVD is filled up with a studio concert performance of Act I, Scene 3 of Wagner's Die Walküre, with the same conductor, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, and Irène Lensky as Sieglinde, from 1969. It shows Vickers on better form, and it is great to hear him in perhaps the ideal role for him, recorded in his prime. But the support he receives is competent rather than inspiring, and the performance lacks vitality or drive. Vickers crowns it with a thrilling top A in his final phrase, but this represents the only real moment of excitement in what should be an intensely emotional, deeply expressive scene from all parties. I had expected the Wagner to redeem this DVD, but vocally it doesn't come close to Vickers's scintillating Siegmund which he recorded for Karajan's complete Ring Cycle, and there is very little to be gained, even for Vickers addicts, from seeing this stand-and-deliver presentation of the piece.

By John Woods