Jon Vickers - Farewell to a Giant

This week saw another sad loss to opera lovers around the world with the announcement of the passing of Canadian Heldentenor, Jon Vickers.  Here was a giant of operatic talent if ever there was one.  I've had a hard time trying to pick a role or recording as a tribute to this remarkable man as he has been a favourite of mine for many years in many different roles.  

So here is a compilation of what I hold most treasured in my collection by Jon Vickers.  For me it all comes down to seven roles: Otello, Radames, Samson, Don Jose, Siegmund, Tristan and Peter Grimes.


Both of his studio ventures into Verdi's great tragedy are ones to treasure and we're fortunate enough that Herbert von Karajan had the sense to film his version in Salzburg for posterity.  Above is the great Esultate!, Otello's thrilling entrance.  Below of course is the devastating final scene, this time from the studio recording, again with Karajan.


Vickers' recording of the Egyptian soldier Radames from Verdi's Aida, has been part of my collection for over twenty years.  So imagine my delight when I discovered the video above with Giulietta Simionato glowing as Amneris,in glorious early colour TV.  Aside from his almost distractingly short costume there is much else to adore here.

But back to the studio recording. Solti's rather savage sound captures Vickers in his prime, a noble, full voiced hero strongly suited to the conductor's vision.  Below is Celeste Aida and there is much to admire in his full-throated yet subtly shaded approach.

Samson et Dalila

Saint-Saens' biblical opera saw it's way into my collection via the classic 1962 recording from HMV with Vickers and Rita Gorr.  Prior to hearing this I was lucky enough to view the Covent Garden production from the 80's with Shirley Verrett as Dalila to Vickers' Samson via broadcast on TV, Vickers was unforgettable.

Below however is Samson's first appearance from the studio recording with Georges Pretre conducting.  One of the many operatic gems from EMI's back catalogue.


Once again we are lucky enough to have both audio and film copies of Jon Vickers in one of his most seminal roles, that of Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen.  Both are with Grace Bumbry as Carmen, filmed with Karajan from Salzburg in 1967 and recorded in the studio for EMI/Angel under Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos in 69-70.

Both are similar in portrayal so enjoy the visual treat that is the Flower Song from the Salzburg film followed by the final scene from the studio recording below.

Die Walkure

Richard Wagner's hero Siegmund, from Die Walkure become Vickers' Wagnerian calling card, together with Tristan.  He was partner to many of the greatest Brunnhildes and Sieglindes, Leonie Rysanek and Birgit Nilsson in particular.  Decca recorded Die Walkure with Vickers and Nilsson back in 1961 under Erich Leinsdorf.  His cries of Walse! will echo down through the ages as among the most heroic.

Tristan und Isolde

Again with Karajan, Vickers recorded his other most famous Wagnerian role, Tristan, from Salzburg in 1972.  This recording of Tristan und Isolde remains among my favourites to this day, especially for the contribution of Vickers, whose tormented Tristan is among one of the most romantic ever recorded.

Have a listen to the love duet from Act 2 below to hear what I mean, his hushed tones are exquisite and among the most seductive ever recorded.  This was my first complete recording of Tristan und Isolde on CD and consequently the one I return to the most often, Karl Bohm aside.

Peter Grimes

It wouldn't be a tribute to Jon Vickers without a nod to Peter Grimes, Britten's violent and tragic masterpiece.  I've loved this piece of Twentieth Century brilliance since I was coming to terms with my own sexuality back in my mid-teens.  The first recording I purchased was the Phillips one with Vickers as Grimes under the baton of Colin Davis.

Vickers' personal feelings for the role of Grimes himself and infamous change of text aside,  this is a towering achievement in characterisation.  The video below is from the Covent Garden production of 1981, one of the great tenor's finest achievements.

#JonVickers #ValeJonVickers #Opera #Wagner #Heldentenor #Carmen #Bizet #Britten #PeterGrimes #Verdi #Aida #Otello


  1. Cathy in Montana19 July 2015 at 20:01

    Wonderful choices, Blair, and a lot of good watching & listening here! I will be returning to your compilation to spend some lingering time with this great man and his artistry. Vickers played a bigger role than probably any other in the maturing of my musical life and my ideas about art in general. Since that early Leinsdorf Walkure, he has been my hero. It's so fortunate for us that we have this recorded legacy to keep in our lives.


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