Interview: Philippe Jordan on the Royal Opera's new Salome and plans for the future

'Once she has the head, she's the one in charge, she’s the subject now. I think this makes her love. It's stunning, over the top and irresistible'

17 February 2008

Philippe Jordan (photo © J Ifkovits)Richard Strauss' Salome returns to the Royal Opera House this week in a new production by David McVicar. Starring Nadja Michael in the title role and Michael Volle as Jochanaan, this is likely to be a highlight of the season. The gleeful warning on the Royal Opera's website that 'this opera contains scenes of nudity and violence' is only going to help what few seats that are left to be snapped up. The conductor for the production is Philippe Jordan who, having already conducted Saint-Säens' Samson et Dalila at Covent Garden, is now tackling a biblical opera of a different sort in Strauss' torridly decadent score.

Jordan, only 33, has just been appointed Musical Director of the Opéra National de Paris (starting in the 09/10 season) and has a diary packed with high-profile engagements over the next couple of years. When I meet him, he comes across as supremely confident but friendly and relaxed. Thanks to a last minute change in the rehearsal schedule, he's in no rush and talks with evident enthusiasm about Strauss' opera and what the work means to him.

My first question regards his approach to the score. Strauss, in his 'Ten Golden Rules for the Album of a Young Conductor', exhorts young maestros to 'conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy Music.' Is this something Jordan can relate to?

'Yes, absolutely. That's the same as with Rosenkavalier when he said it should be like Mozart and Lehár. The more he got on in life the more he went for the word and the understanding of the word, so that in Capriccio he [in the guise of La Roche] says "Auf die Sänger nimm Rücksicht! Nicht zu laut das Orchester..." ["Be considerate towards the singer! The orchestra not too loud..." - reprinted on the first page of the score as a motto]. He knew that this was really very important, so that's the most important approach and is really key for producing that sense of drama. Of course, so is giving sense to all these colours in the score, finding the right shape giving clarity to the words, outlining the inner drama and all the colours. The orchestration is superb but it involves a lot of work on the score, marking the different dynamics without, of course, losing the profile of the characters.'

'It's a challenge because some of the music is almost over-Wagnerian. It's highly explosive material so, as a conductor, especially a young conductor, you tend to really go for it; in the same expressive way as in his tone poems or in Mahler's symphonies. Here, though, there is a large amount of text and you have to be very economical with the sound. It's very much a matter of the less you do the better it is. Musically speaking, it's some of the most highly explosive material around; it's like a minefield, you have to really know where to walk through, if you run through it will all blow up around you. It's about finding the right shape, the tempi and expression and all the dynamics, you have to find a way to make it work.'

Strauss himself spent a long time creating a French version of Salome, working with Romain Rolland to adjust his setting, retro-fitting it to Oscar Wilde's original. As a typically cosmopolitan Swiss, does Jordan think it's important to try and bring an element of French clarity to such a Wagnerian score?

'Yes, that was definitely important for Strauss too: to maintain that particular distance. He was never a subjective composer. That was part of his success. After Wagner, everyone fell into the trap of this subjective kind of composing and self-expressive kind of music and that's why no-one really was successful after Wagner. Wagner had taken it as far as it could go and even he went towards economy with Parsifal. But Strauss had the idea of avoiding this, he went into the symphonic poems describing and not being: he's always got the orchestra as an objective character, describing and watching. He always gives a picture of the text, evey word has a description in the orchestra: in Elektra there's the picture of the blood, one of the maids says there's the blood flowing down the stairs so of course the violas describe this [he sings a descending motif]; when the Marschallin asks 'lachst du mich aus?' ['are you laughing at me?'], of course the second bassoon will do a little trill. And even the final trio of Rosenkavalier, as expressive and incredible as it is, even this is orchestrated and sung somehow artificially. Somehow with the three voices it's like watching three beautiful people in a glass house and that's the distance which Strauss creates: looking at the beauty of this jewel but never getting pulled into it. That's part of his success: the irony that comes through, there's lots of irony and that's what makes it, I think, so exciting.

Philippe JordanHans Keller once complained that Strauss had a 'hole in his heart', how does Jordan reconcile the requirement to produce an emotional experience for the audience in the opera house with the fact that Strauss is writing music that's actually quite objective?

'Of course you have to be involved in the drama but also remain detached at the same time.' Here he quotes another of Strauss's rules: 'You should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm'. 'You can have a great performance but you come out afterwards and say, "yes it was good", and sometimes you have a performance where you've not necessarily felt so involved and it can be even better for the audience. You have to find a way to give room to the emotions, to make them happen, and especially for the singers and musicians to make them happen. It's like what I said about this explosive material. Of course it needs to explode at some point but you have to lead it very, very carefully to make it work.'

Before deciding to follow his father's footsteps onto the podium, Jordan had ambitions to be a stage director. Was he able to get involved in the process of creating the production with David McVicar?

'Yes, since we did Carmen in Glyndebourne we've had a really good relationship together. I know his work and he knows my work; we know who's responsible for what, too, which is important in a collaboration. So we don't interfere with each other but he can ask me "Can this tempo be a bit faster?", and I can ask him, "Can this be a bit closer here?" when the positioning on stage doesn't work for me. David is a very emotional director and he's very good a giving movement and action to the artists. German is not his language, though, so it's very exciting for me because I can make a contribution with that with the psychology of the language, with phrasing and all these details. And somehow these two approaches come together to work well.' When I try to draw him on what we can expect from the production, he says only that 'it will be a very different production of Salome, but still in the spirit of the work. Definitely dark and bloody.'

German soprano Nadja Michael is already an experienced exponent of the role of Salome, but has Jordan tried to work with her to bring something new to it?

'Salome is so hard to sing for each singer who's ever done this part. There's no singer where you really can get all the elements together. You have the very lyrical beginning and with the scene with John the Baptist it's the same thing, and then you have the final scene which is heading into Elektra territory. So you always have to find a compromise. Then you need a singer who is pretty, acts well and can do the dance - these are all the things you have to do together and Nadja is a great package. For me it was very important to do Salome with her in Berlin last year. It was a revival, and I knew this production was coming up so it was great to find an opportunity to work with her on the role. She was the Salome for those five performances in Berlin and it's really paying off now. We've already got to know each other through the role. And it's a role where you can't, as conductor, say "it has to be this way or that way", you have to work through and make the singer feel comfortable. There are so many spoken passages: one Salome might need space here, or another needs it faster there. It has to be done in very much the Italian way; you have to help the singers to make sure that they're comfortable, then you can work on the wider interpretation. Since having the experience from those performances last year it's great to know what you can build on and having this rehearsal period now is a real luxury.'

He's conducted several productions at Covent Garden over the past few years, are there any plans yet to return after this Salome?

'Unfortunately not. Of course, with my appointment at the Paris Opera things have had to change slightly. I'd been travelling all over to get experience and seen all these places and it's important now to have a place to really focus on. Since opera takes up so much time, I'll have to re-shape my symphonic schedule too, so it's very hard to see what I'm going to be able to fit in. I definitely hope to come back here, though. It's one of the great experiences, there's a great mixture of professionalism but also this lovely, familiar atrmosphere. So we'll see.'

I ask about the appointment in Paris and if, after having had several years away from a high-profile, directorial post he's looking forward to being able to exercise a bit more control.

'Free-lance music is a great thing. You get to see lots of great orchestras, great opera houses, great cities. It's really nice but I've spent four years already doing that. In the long term, it's not very healthy and it's not very satisfying. Of course you can introduce some ideas and certain colours but it's difficult to really make your mark, you can't do anything long term where you can grow and develop with a group.So that's one side, you need to have more influence: at some houses you have that influence, some you don't, at some you have an influence on the director and others you don't. At some it works very well with the orchestra but with others you have problems with alternating musicians. That's why it's so important to have the opportunity again. Of course in Paris I'm Musical Director and Nicholas Joel is still the main Artistic Director who has the last say. But he's like a partner – and an experienced one at that – so for me it's a great relationship.'

As far a repertoire in Paris, does he have any specific plans yet? 'Yes, we've already planned out the first two seasons, starting with 09/10.' I pause, waiting for him to spill the beans as to what those plans might be but he goes on, with a laugh, 'of course I'm not allowed to say what those are.' He's enthusiastic, though, about having the opportunity to really get to know and fine tune the orchestra there: 'it's your instrument and although it's fantastic to work with an orchestra like the Philharmonia, with them you get three rehearsals if you're lucky, so you can't really get across your own view of the piece - it's impossible. You can produce a good performance together but it's not really you. It's like borrowing a Ferrari which you can take and try out but at the end of the day you have to give it back without any scratches.'

Next season sees Jordan conduct his first Ring Cycle, in Zurich. Some, I say, might question someone so young taking on this ultimate challenge. Is it something he particularly feels ready to do now or did the opportunity simply present itself?

'It's always a dream for a conductor to do the Ring, you don't normally do the Ring when you're 33 or even 27. It was not even something for me to consider in my Graz years. Actually Parsifal was a good piece for a place like Graz to try out - I studied and studied it but it still took me a long time to find the shape for the first act. I've now got around forty operas in my repertoire, all kinds: Italian, German, Russian, French, contemporary. I think I'll be 35 when I start at the Paris Opera, so young, but not too young; I think it's a good age. With Wagner, though, it's not only a thing of age but of experience. All the great conductors did it when they were very young - even Mahler was in his twenties when he did it - and you only can be good at this stuff when you do it and experience it. And I'm really glad to have the opportunity. There's less pressure because it's a revival and it's spread out over the whole season. I have no other operas to learn that season and only one new production – of Die Entführung aus dem Serail – so it's a great opportunity.

'Also going through the Strauss operas first is a great help, because the scores in many respects are even bigger. So Wagner becomes suddenly far more clear, and very revolutionary when you read it.' So If you can make sense of a Strauss score, it's good training for Wagner? 'Absolutely, I'm studying the Ring at the moment and suddenly Die Walküre seems so clear and pure beside Salome. It's extraordinary and of course it gives you a new view on the score.'

Philippe Jordan (photo © Arve Dinda)When I ask about longer term ambitions, Jordan expresses a desire to return to one part of his training, composition, which his busy schedule has prevented him from pursuing. 'As exciting all my conducting work is, I do ask myself sometimes "is this what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life?" I think I might want to do something different in the way of writing and composing. It would be a matter of having the time to do it. As a conductor you're always the composer's advocate, you're always interpreting, which is fantastic because you're getting to know the music, getting closer to the composer. But sometimes I ask myself what's coming out of me? What's actually inside me? And I would love to have time to compose. It would be really exciting just to sit there at the piano with a blank sheet and just have one idea – not even an exact idea, especially if you don't have experience - and then a second idea and then a third idea and suddenly something is coming up and at the end of the day you can look at it and ask, "where's that coming from? Did I invent that?" And so you start to hear music that's inside you but you haven't experienced it, you haven't heard it. I think that's a very, very interesting process and I hope one day to have more time to do that.'

Is it an advantage to compose when you've got a repertoire of forty operas and countless symphonic works in your mind? 'It's an advantage of course, since you know how to compose, you know all about orchestration. On the other hand, it's very discouraging: you have all these masterpieces in your head and everything you write down looks like nothing, especially if it's not in print. And most of the time you throw it away because you don't believe in its quality. I think you need the time for it, to go for it, to risk it and write what you feel and not to ask, is this for eternity, or is it to please people - or is it something special? You just need to get it out onto the page.

'Sometimes when you read the sketchbooks of Beethoven, for the Ninth for example, it's quite a relief because you have many of the great ideas in the printed score and then you look at the sketches and it's actually quite banal.' Or Wagner's sketches for the Ring and his first draft of Siegfrieds Tod? 'Exactly, and I had the same experience with the Neue Wagner Ausgabe where there's a Piano Sonata in B [flat] Major by Wagner. I opened it and it was just like a very bad copy of a Beethoven piano sonata. If someone is able to do, after that, the Rheingold Prelude and the Tristan Prelude, then there's hope.'

Later in the year, Jordan will be leading another new production of a Strauss opera when he conducts Renée Fleming and Bo Skovhus in Capriccio at the Vienna State Opera in June. Does he see himself as a Strauss specialist?

'I don't want to be labelled as a Strauss specialist, but it's a repertoire in which I feel very comfortable and one I have a connection with. Growing up I was playing all the vocal scores, I have a connection with the text, I love working with singers and the orchestra, finding the way Strauss thinks. I'm very glad that I've got more opportunities to do that now, but it would be totally boring just doing that all the time.' And how does he believe Strauss thinks? 'There's the distance unlike Wagner, who wanted to be taken completely seriously. And that was the problem with the Symphonic Poems. With Don Juan for example, Cosima [Wagner] was really not happy with his addressing these themes so he then did Tod und Verklärung. For me, it's technically a great composition, the way it's formed and the way it grows from the materialist to the spiritual at the end. The way the material develops is extraordinary, but you just don't believe that Strauss really believed in it himself, that whole spiritual aspect.'

Does he see this as similar to the music for Jochanaan in Salome? 'Yes, especially the blocks where he has to sing out of the cistern. Of course there are two phrases, the first is 'Er ist in einem Nachen', this is quite sensational, and I do believe in this moment because he comes out of the situation, of 'Ich will deinen Mund küssen', and there's different emotion there. And it's the same with the music of the two Nazarenes. It's true though, you can hear when he means it and when he doesn't.'

So Strauss had mastered all the technique of Wagnerism but didn't back it up with the same philosophical seriousness, at least not openly? 'Yes, and it's probably one of the reasons why Mahler, who was a great Wagnerian, never composed an opera of his own. Strauss couldn't understand this seriousness, asking "warum will er erlöst werden?" – "'Why does he want to be redeemed? – what from?" Mahler would bleed for his works and saw that Strauss could get his orchestration right and be happy after just two orchestral rehearsals. Mahler must have been thinking "but I have to do, re-do and re-work and have seven rehearsals and then revise it!" They had respect for each other but didn't quite understand each other.'

This brings us back to Jordan's approach to Salome and his understanding of what still, a century after it was written, makes this such a shocking opera. 'Salome is actually more cruel than Elektra', he points out. 'At the beginning you don't know what's going to happen. In Elektra it's clear that the murder's going to happen from the very beginning of the piece. But Salome is about love, it's about fear. And then you have the cruel ending and the crueller it gets, the more beautiful it gets. I think she has no other way to show love and I truly think that she believes in love at that moment. It's the only way she's been taught to love.'

So we can understand Elektra's motives and see she's obsessed with revenge, but find it more difficult to see what's driving Salome? 'I think it's more complicated than that, it comes out of the situation. She's always been loved as the sexual object, she's always been abused in a certain way – we don't know exactly how – but she's always being watched by Herod and Narraboth, everyone's watching her and she's an object all the time. Jochanaan, though, is not watching her and he says things against her mother which makes it even more interesting. That's why she's interested: she sees all her hope in him and then this hope is rejected and the only way to show her love is to dominate. She's been dominated all her life and now finds a way that she herself can dominate, so she dominates Herod after the dance because he owes her something and once she has the head she's the one in charge, she's the subject now. And I think this makes her love; if you try to understand her psychologically, I think that's absolutely clear. She has no other way to show love or be loved because she's never been shown this by anyone, she's only ever experienced being used and dominated so she falls in love completely.' And Strauss understood this by producing some of his most sensuous and beautiful love music? 'Yes, it's stunning, over the top and irresistible.'

By Hugo Shirley