Opera & Highlights
Le Voce Di Lecce (The Voices Of Lecce)
Camassa, Demitry, Elmo,
Perulli, Rizzo, Tafuro.
Rusticana / I Pagliacci
. . . . . . . .. . Grace Bumbry
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jon Vickers
and Chorus of Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires
Live performance, June 30, 1968
Carlo Bergonzi was a Verdi tenor of the elegant kind, sorely missed at this turn of the century. He excelled in Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera, Luisa Miller, La Forza del Destino, La Traviata, and I Lombardi. He was also a thrilling Andrea Chénier, and now, from this Italian paragon we have another verismo souvenir, Mascagni’s staple in a live performance that followed his 1965 recording of Cavalleria Rusticana with Herbert von Karajan by three years. His partner is the magnificent Grace Bumbry, who sang mezzo and soprano roles, but never made a studio recording of the tragic Santuzza.
Bergonzi was criticized by some as being "too gentlemanly" on the Karajan disc. If not exactly cutting loose here, he reaps the advantages of immediacy and sometimes surprise that a live performance offers. Right from the start - in Turiddu’s serenade to Lola - the beauty of the Bergonzi timbre is readily, clearly accessible. If anger was not the tenor’s forte, he is ardent and virile enough to match Bumbry’s movingly anguished Santuzza.
Bumbry has said that, among shorter operas, Santuzza is a more demanding role than that of Salome, with continual heavy singing until the Intermezzo. But no difficulties are evident in her performance here: in peak form, Bumbry sings with a vocal richness, brilliance, and authority that are rare in any generation, sounding as if she could easily have gone another act if she had one.
Bergonzi comes into his own with the farewell to his mother; in this live recording, we even hear the sound of an actual kiss to Mamma Lucia. He gets a round of applause as he departs to die at Alfio’s hands. If we never got Bergonzi’s farewell to Desdemona onstage, he does full justice to a kindly mamma.
"The actor touches the very core of life," Canadian tenor Jon Vickers has said of his work in developing his roles. In few parts is that core laid so bare as with Leoncavallo’s Canio and his "anguish deep and human." Vickers, who sang a wide repertory and selected his Italian roles (including Otello and Radames) with great care, ranks with the major interpreters of this verismic classic. Opera’s Harold Rosenthal dubbed him "the finest . . . since Caruso."
Vickers first sang this part in the 1950s in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation telecast (now available from VAI). He triumphed with it in Vienna in 1959, and it was his debut role at the Metropolitan Opera in January 1960. His searingly intense portrayal became a staple of his repertory. "Jon Vickers raises Canio to heroic stature," said Andrew Porter. And, as with his Otello and Peter Grimes, his frightening realism transcended mere theater.
Canio’s warning of what is to come is clear in Vickers’s Un tal gioco; in Vesti la giubba, Vickers avoids sobs and hysterical laughter, always making the famous aria a heart-felt response to grievous betrayal. When he breaks out in No, Pagliaccio non son, during the play-within-the-play, it is the essence of his unique stage presence - riveting, throat-grabbing.
As with Vickers’s Don José, his Canio has always drawn vivid reactions from his leading ladies. One Nedda, Catherine Malfitano, recalled, "It was pretty scary to be on stage with him . . . but his scariness was based in a solid technique. When he exploded, it all came from a very controlled place. But it never seemed calculated - that was his gift." Performing with Carol Vaness, Vickers unexpectedly loomed above her and lifted her, and Vaness recalled, "I thought, Oh, my God, he really is going to kill me. I was so convinced by the intense look in his eyes. For that instant, we were those two characters. I thought, Kill me and get it over with! After the scene, I just looked at him and said, ‘That was for real, wasn’t it?’ He said, ‘Come on, kid, get up off the floor.’ He was totally wonderful."
Jeannie Williams is a columnist for USA Today and author of the biography Jon Vickers: A Hero’s Life.