Monday, July 13, 2015

Remembering Jon Vickers

Jon Vickers as Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio
I've never seen such a dark stage in my life. The blackness was so intense that being in the wings was a hazard. You could step on a mouse, or knock over a light board,  or knock down a beefy stage hand and you didn't want to to do that. I doubt safety rules would allow such a Stygian environment today, but oh my it was dark. The curtain went up on nothing. Utter darkness. I remember hearing a nervous rustling in the capacity audience. It was midnight dark in the theater, too. Had the Boston Edison bill gone unpaid yet again?

There were lights coming from the musicians stands in the pit, but they did nothing to relive the
blackness. I'm here to tell you, it was terrifying being in that theater  that day. You were waiting for an apocalypse.

Then it came. There was a large, tragic chord and a voice cried out from the gloom. "Gott!" To my dying day I won't forget that sound, that word coming out of nothing. It was a tragic sound, huge, strangled, desperate and beautiful. "Gott!" God! "Gott! Welch' dunkel hier"! God! How dark it is! It was one note, this Gott! and it was nothing but despair.

The voice belonged to Jon Vickers. He was singing the tortured Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio, in Boston around 1976. Florestan only sings in Act II. His release from prison is engineered by his wife, who works in the prison disguised as a boy the better to find her husband and bust him out. Which is what happens. But 'Gott!' shook the walls and left the theater long after the happy ending.,

Jon Vickers died on July 10 at 88. He'd had Alzheimer's disease for several years. His, to me was not a beautiful, loving, friendly voice although he could paint in those colors. His was the voice of despair, the voice of the outsider, the voice of long, of hope, of anger and of love. He was known to be a contradictory and a difficult man. He may have been hard to live with. But if you loved words and music, if if you responded to power and sincerity on the stage, Jon Vickers was your man. I was lucky to hear his Otello, his Peter Grimes, shattering, and his Parsifal. To my dying day though, no other artist, not even Callas, punched me in the guts and broke my heart as Vickers did with that one word in Fidelio: Gott! God.