Jon Vickers, born on Oct. 29, 1926, built up a career as one of the finest dramatic tenors of his time. He conquered a wide range of repertoire across a wide range of houses, became associated with quite a few roles, and then went on to make acclaimed recordings with other major superstars.
Vickers’ career got kickstarted in 1957 when he appeared in the Covent Garden in “Un Ballo I Maschera,” and from there the rest is history. Here is a look at the roles that he left a major stamp on.
Vickers, alongside Mario del Monaco, Plácido Domingo, Ramón Vinay, and James McCracken, make up a rather short list of tenors associated with this greatest of Italian roles. Vickers’ Otello is legendary, his unique timbre perfectly suited to the character’s rather ambiguous nature. He’s always technically secure in this role, seeming more at ease with its wide vocal palette than perhaps anyone else on that list. He could stir up the massive titanic vocal forces required but also sing with the most delicate of pianni when required. He recorded the opera twice in his career.
If not Otello, then this is the role that usually comes to mind with the Canadian tenor. Simply put, there is “Before Vickers” and “After Vickers” with regard to this character, so major was his impact on it. He’s simply heart-wrenching to listen to, and again, his ability to give the character nuance and range makes it, perhaps, the most compelling interpretation to date. This opera was to be his final recording of a full dramatic work.
Some critics claimed that Vickers’ “Tristan” was perhaps the best since Lauritz Melchior’s. Wolfgang Windgassen might have something to say about that, but there is no denying Vickers’ ability to sing Wagner’s lines with a lyrical quality often lacking in many heldentenors. He is, perhaps, the most “bel canto” of interpretations, particularly in the controversial recording with Herbert Von Karajan, where the slower tempi really work wonders in Vickers’ voice.
The other famed role that Vickers conquered, he hit all the right colors and notes in his portrayal of the tragic hero and his recordings of the role, particularly those in live performances are legendary. Few tenors manage the delicate balance between tenderness and heroism at the climax of the first act the way Vickers does. He would record the role twice, but there are a number of live performances around.
There are a number of other roles that could have filled this fifth slot, but Vickers gave this role life in a way that few tenors had or have since done (with the exception of Jonas Kaufmann). He recorded the role with Herbert von Karajan and performed it all over, making people re-evaluate the greatness latent in the often overlooked masterpiece.
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