OBITUARY: Ramn Vinay

No heroic tenor could boast a finer memorial than Ramn Vinay's in the recording of Verdi's Otello, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, broadcast by the NBC Symphony in December 1947. For the next dozen years the Chilean- born tenor was the outstanding exponent of the role in America and Europe. He was also a superb Tristan and Siegmund, an excellent Don Jose and Samson, an interesting interpreter of many other roles, but it was his Otello that captured the public imagination.

Though his voice may not have been as conventionally Italianate in quality as that of some of his successors, Mario del Monaco, Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo, for example, it was a tremendously powerful and highly expressive instrument that, taken together with his strong dramatic presence and total absorption in the role, never failed to transport his audience. His first Otello in London, during La Scala's visit to Covent Garden in 1950, made an overwhelming impression on young persons like myself who had heard some good German opera, but nothing to match this in the Italian repertory. Vinay soon demonstrated that he was also a magnificent Wagner singer. Like many another heroic tenor, he had started his career as a baritone, and retained a dark vocal colour that was particularly suited to tragic characters such as Tristan and Siegmund.

Vinay was born in Chilln, an agricultural town in Chile. His father was French, his mother Italian, and the boy was taken to France to be educated. He played the violin in the school orchestra, but did not sing. His education finished, he was sent to Mexico to gain experience in his father's saddlery and harness business. He began to study singing and to perform as an amateur, at this point as a baritone. Entering a radio competition sponsored by Coca Cola, he was heard by a representative of the Mexico City Opera, who engaged him for the company, and he made his debut in 1938 as Count Di Luna in Il trovatore. Other roles he sang were Rigoletto and Scarpia. Then, finding his voice was changing, he studied further, and in 1943 made his tenor debut as Don Jose in Carmen.

The following year Vinay sang his first Otello in Mexico City, also appearing as Samson, Cavaradossi and Des Grieux in Puccini's Manon Lescaut. Some of the performances were conducted by Jean Morel, who engaged the tenor for the New York City Opera, where in the autumn of 1945 he made his debut as Don Jose. Vinay made his Metropolitan debut in February 1946, again as Don Jose, followed by Radames in Aida. Then, owing to the illness of the tenor Torsten Ralf, he sang Otello at 10 hours notice. This performance led directly to his engagement by Toscanini to sing in the NBC broadcast and recording of Verdi's opera the following year, for which he was coached by the maestro himself.

In the summer of 1947 Vinay toured with the National Grand Opera Company of New York to various Italian cities, including Bologna, Florence and Turin, singing Otello and creating a furore wherever the company performed. He sang Otello on the opening night of the 1947/48 season at La Scala, to tremendous acclaim; he sang the role in September 1950, on the opening night of La Scala's visit to Covent Garden; he sang it in 1951 at the Salzburg Festival; he sang it in the Verona Arena, at the San Carlo, Naples, the Paris Opera, in Santiago and Buenos Aires.

Although, by the mid-1950s, Vinay had clocked up more than 250 performances of Otello, he did not neglect other repertory. Having made his San Francisco debut as Don Jose in 1949, the following year he sang his first Wagner role - Tristan, with Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde. This had not been easy to prepare as the multilingual Vinay knew no German; but by 1952, when he sang Tristan at Bayreuth, his enunciation of the text was as authentic as it always was in French and Italian. During his six seasons at Bayreuth Vinay also sang Siegmund (Die Walkure), Parsifal and Tannhauser. In 1953 he returned to Covent Garden to sing with the company, making his debut as Siegmund, and over the next seven years also sang Tristan and Otello. In 1954 at La Scala he sang the title-role of Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac, scoring a personal triumph; the following year he tackled the purely lyrical role of Lenski in Eugene Onegin at the Holland Festival with equal success. Engaged at the Metropolitan for 16 seasons, he sang roles as diverse as Canio (Pagliacci), Tristan, Samson and Herod (Salome).

Vinay never put less than his entire resources, physical and psychological, into a performance, and after 25 years as a singer, 20 of them as a tenor, the strain inevitably began to show. In 1962 he reverted to the baritone category, and sang Telramund in Lohengrin at Bayreuth. At San Francisco (1965/66) he sang Dr Schon in Lulu, Scarpia, both Rossini's and Mozart's Dr Bartolo and Verdi's Falstaff. His other baritone roles included Iago, which he sang in Santiago in a production of Otello that he directed himself. At the last performance, on 22 September 1969, Vinay returned to the role of Otello, singing just the final act as his farewell to the stage. He was apparently in very good voice, and the occasion, albeit emotional, was a triumph. He continued to direct opera for some years.

Elizabeth Forbes

Ramn Vinay, opera singer: born Chilln, Chile 31 August 1912; died Puebla, Mexico 4 January 1996.

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