Tired of Netflix, I took refuge, the other night, in YouTube and found myself binge-watching and listening to three of my favourite Wagnerian tenors of yesteryear – Jon Vickers (1926-2015), Siegfried Jerusalem (1940-) and Alberto Remedios (1935-2016), all of whom I saw performing in London in the ’70s and ’80s. I was a huge enthusiast for Vickers and Jerusalem even then, but have only more recently come to appreciate how splendid and exceptional Remedios was.
Great heroic Wagner tenors, such as these, are ever thin on the ground. They must be heroic in two senses at least – both stylistically and emotionally. They need voices resonant enough to convey the heroism of the characters they sing, and personal heroism in order to be able to walk onto the stage and sing the arduous roles that composers such as Wagner have written for them. Few can keep it up for long. They peak and they fade. I was lucky to hear and see all of them at their best.
Jon Vickers was probably the most extraordinary of the three. Indeed, he had one of the most extraordinary tenor voices of the 20th century, an elemental force that he could barely control (he’s probably loved rather less by those who know how singing works). It suited the operatic characters he inhabited, men struggling with feelings and faults that they, also, could barely control – Otello, Siegmund, Tristan, Peter Grimes, Canio, Samson – rough physical men, acting violently and impulsively.
Here he is as Siegmund (in Die Walkure):
And here as Canio (in Pagliacci):
He was also a profoundly religious man, and temperamental. He had his own strong views as to how a character should be portrayed and sung and, like Peter Grimes, he was averse to ‘interference’. He viewed Wagner’s Tannhauser as blasphemous and withdrew from a Covent Garden production in the 1980s.
He also sang lieder, but to my ears and eyes he never sounded or looked quite right in the more domestic setting of the lieder recital hall, straining at the leash like a wild animal tamed.
So besotted was I by Vickers the singer/actor that I even wrote to him in the 1980s to ask for his autograph, which, courteously, he sent me. I still have it, scrawled across a photograph of him as Samson, in chains.
I was turned on to Siegfried Jerusalem by an article the great journalist Bernard Levin wrote in The Times in the early 1980’s after hearing Jerusalem sing at Bayreuth, hailing him as the yearned-for newcomer heroic tenor, possesed of a splendidly easy, heroic and burnished voice. There was certainly a dearth of good heroic tenors at the time. Peter Hoffman and Rene Kollo were already sounding strained.
Here he is, also singing Siegmund:
It’s a beautiful and eloquent performance. The sheer quality of his voice, the sound itself, is amongst the most beautiful I’ve heard. But in comparison with Jon Vickers it seems emotionally light.
So besotted was I by Jerusalem the singer that I wrote to the Royal Opera House to suggest they engage him more frequently. They replied, courteously, that he lacked the tessitura required for the larger Wagner roles. I think they were wrong about that. He sang Siegfried at Bayreuth and Parsifal at the Met to great acclaim.
I heard and saw Alberto Remedios in the ENO English-language production of the ring, conducted by Reginal Goodall, who was famous for making Wagner’s operas last longer than any other conductor.
Remedios was Liverpudlian through and through, his grandfather an immigrant from Spain. Semi-professional footballer, shipyard welder, laddish, I suspect, to the day he died, he possessed a naturally wonderful voice and an aversion, sadly, to learning roles in foreign languages – one of the reasons he never sang at Bayreuth (they also considered his voice too lyrical). I read somewhere that he had difficulty in learning roles in English, too, and on one occasion gave the flowers he was presented with at the end of an opera to his prompter.
Here’s his Siegmund (in German):
And Peter Grimes:
Listen also (on Spotify) to the last act of Reginald Goodall’s Twilight of the Gods. I’ve never heard Siegfried sung more ardently or gloriously.
To learn more about Remedios, you might watch him as he’s cornered by Eamonn Andrews for This is Your Life. You will marvel at how awful TV used to be.
They were three wonderful tenors, and though there are equally great Wagnerian tenors singing today (Jonas Kaufmann, amongst a few others) I miss these three particularly – and Jon Vickers most of all.