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Performing Arts

Vickers Finds His Speaking Voice

The retired singer offers a reading of Tennyson's 'Enoch Arden,' set to Strauss.

March 12, 2000|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Say what you like about the 19th century Romantics, they took their art seriously. At the intersection of poetry and music was a popular home entertainment hybrid known as melodrama, the recitation of a ballad with piano accompaniment. There are notable examples by Schubert, Schumann and Liszt, and from the end of the century, Richard Strauss' setting for Tennyson's "Enoch Arden."

Perhaps "setting" is too strong a word for what amounts to incidental music. Judge for yourself: The compound work caps "An Evening With Jon Vickers," Monday at Pepperdine University in Malibu.

"The poem came into the hands of Strauss, who was so moved by it that he wrote sort of a background music for it, not really an accompaniment," Vickers says, speaking from his home in Bermuda. "Strauss introduces the poem and has some transitions, but there are long periods when the piano doesn't play at all. It is exquisitely done."

Now 74 and retired from singing since 1988, Vickers is one of those artists who seem to acquire the adjective "legendary" as a natural part of their full name. A singer of genuine historical importance, he is the subject of a new hardcover biography, "Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life," and his radical portrayal of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes was analyzed in a long article in Opera News in November.

Open just about any guide to recordings or videos and you will find Vickers' name, probably with the L-word nearby. For example, recordings of two of the operas he was best known for are included among Gramophone's "100 Greatest Classical Recordings of All Time"--the "Fidelio" he recorded with Otto Klemperer in 1962, and "Les Troyens," with Colin Davis, from 1969.

Beginning in the late 18th century, operas also often featured sections of melodrama, including the famous dungeon scene in "Fidelio." Vickers, however, was not familiar with the more domestic forms of melodrama, or monodrama and duodrama as they were sometimes labeled.

"Actually, I'm ashamed to say, I had never heard of 'Enoch Arden.' I had never done any reciting or reading," Vickers says. "Suddenly, some people in Montreal asked me if I would do it. When I read it, I thought, 'Oh, what a beautiful work!' "

The result was an enthusiastically received performance at the Montreal Chamber Festival in 1998, with Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin. Vickers then repeated the performance in Washington, D.C., last year, and has plans to do it at the Ravinia Festival this summer and at the Edinburgh Festival next year.

The Montreal performance, broadcast and recorded live by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., has already been issued on CD by VAI Audio. It joins a surprising number of recorded competitors, the most prominent being the 1961 performance by actor Claude Rains with no less than Glenn Gould at the keyboard.

Tennyson's poem narrates the life and travails of a sailor who is shipwrecked and a castaway for years. Upon returning home, Enoch Arden finds that his wife has married another childhood friend, who has adopted and raised his children. Arden does not reveal himself, allowing them them the peace of ignorance.

Vickers' reading of the poem, without intermission, clocks in just under 90 minutes. His pianist at Pepperdine is faculty member Sara Banta.

"One of the things that I love about this poem," Vickers says, "is that there is only the slightest hint of one nasty person. Everyone else is noble, thoughtful and generous--this is a work that shows the reward that comes from generosity of spirit.

"I have been surprised and delighted with such incredible silence at these performances. It is quite staggering to see grown men with tears streaming down their faces."

Strong feelings are a hallmark of a Vickers performance, whether reading or singing.

"I have often said that, onstage, I would try to reach through the proscenium arch and enfold the audience, urge them to come up here with me and experience this work."

*

The importance of this vital expressive connection between artist and audience is one reason why Vickers never liked supertitles. Although Strauss encountered the poem in a German translation, Vickers will be reading the English original.

"I never was terribly fond of the concept," he says. "In fact, I wouldn't sing if it were given with supertitles. They have a tendency to take concentration off of what is on the stage, and to detract from the singer's opportunity and obligation to take hold of the audience."

If "Enoch Arden" is about generosity of spirit, that is something Vickers clearly understands. He is donating his services for this performance to Pepperdine, where his stepson, Justin Stewart Vickers, graduated in 1998 in sports medicine. Proceeds will benefit the school's Flora L. Thornton Opera Program.

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