Dumb luck at the EJB

I found something marvelous and don’t deserve any credit for the discovery. That’s why I say “dumb luck.”

We’ve just had the verismo class in the opera course I teach at School of Continuing Studies here at University of Toronto. I looked in the collection of the Music Library in the Edward Johnson Building, one of my favourite places in this city, or anywhere else come to think of it.

I stumbled upon a couple of wonderful things.

The DVD that I used most is one I’ve seen before, a live performance from the Metropolitan Opera in 1978 of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci in productions by Franco Zeffirelli. A young Placido Domingo sings a sympathetic account of both of the tenor leads.

This isn’t the recording that spawned the headline although I’m grateful to again be in the presence of two voices I miss:

  • Tatiana Troyanos is over-the-top as Santuzza, holding nothing back in her emotional blackmail, her heart on her sleeve, the voice as extraordinary as ever.
  • And Teresa Stratas was a feisty Nedda, so beautiful and defiant in that final scene.

No, I’m thinking of something rarer.

The library also has a 1955 VHS of Pagliacci, slightly abridged, with a remarkable cast.  Because it’s VHS it’s less usable in a class room, where you have to rewind, but I did take the time to play one part. Canio is played by a 29 year old Jon Vickers, still at the very beginning of his career and still a student when he went into the studio. The voice would get much thicker as the years went by.  His “vesti la giubba” was completely original even at this early date.

There’s another surprise on the tape, and in an unexpected role. One might expect to find Louis Quilico in this opera, but on this occasion he sang Silvio, Nedda’s lover, rather than Tonio, the role he would assume later in his career when his voice had thickened. Quilico is a handsome figure at this point, almost exactly the same age as Vickers. I shook hands with them in the 1970s backstage after an Otello at the Met conducted by James Levine.

But at this point the voices and their bodies were decades lighter, the delivery more fluid and uninhibited. As the voices became bigger and more powerful they lost flexibility. It’s a fascinating trade-off that’s unmistakable in two well-known voices, the two finest male singers I ever heard.  While Vickers’ talent is known, I believe Quilico is under-rated as he only really conquered the world stage in the latter part of his career, when some of the bloom was off the voice.

The cast includes Eva Likova as Nedda, who used her ballet training in the final scene as Columbina, and Robert Savoie as Tonio. Otto-Werner Mueller conducts the Orchestra of Radio-Canada, Montreal.

I need to look further to get my own copy of this performance from the CBC, hopefully on a DVD. So far it hasn’t turned up in any of my searches: but I will make some enquiries. For any fan of Vickers and especially for fans of Quilico, this recording is pure gold.

Have a look at this excerpt, up to the most chilling delivery of the final line that I have ever heard.

It’s worth recalling, too what amazing things the CBC used to do.

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One Response to Dumb luck at the EJB

  1. Edward Brain says:

    Funny, I have a DVD of this performance, plus a couple other highlights of operas that Vickers starred in for the CBC in the 1950s, including the first act of Tosca. It is a great performance.

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