After over a decade as music director of the Paris Opera, the conductor Philippe Jordan is preparing to enter a new phase of his career at the Vienna State Opera. He bids farewell with the same work that won over the French capital’s audience in 2010: Wagner’s “Ring.”
A new staging of the tetralogy by Calixto Bieito has been scheduled to begin this season and continue in the fall before it unfolds under Mr. Jordan’s baton as a mini-festival in November and December. It takes place despite a loss of over 16 million euros ($17 million) because of strikes over retirement reform that forced the company to withdraw two new productions next season.
The company has also made available on its website until Sunday a replay of an earlier production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which Mr. Jordan was to conduct at Palais Garnier (three other productions were canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak). Until May 3, viewers will also have the opportunity to experience a full cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies that Mr. Jordan recorded with the house orchestra in 2017-18.
Known as much for his versatility and rigor as an ability to balance the theatrical with musical considerations, the 45-year-old (son of the conductor Armin Jordan) is credited with raising standards in the pit during his Paris tenure. But it is with Wagner perhaps more than any other composer that the Swiss native has made his mark, from noted appearances at the Bayreuth Festival in 2012 to the Metropolitan Opera last year.
Starting this fall, when Mr. Jordan takes over as music director in Vienna, he will devote the bulk of his energy to activities at the State Opera. Alongside the “Ring,” he is scheduled to conduct only two concerts in Paris next season (as a further sign of commitment to his new post, he will end his position as principal conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker in 2021).
Mr. Jordan said in a telephone interview that “it is best to leave on a high note”: “Although I would have been happy to spend another 10 years in Paris — with this wonderful orchestra, with these two houses, in this wonderful city — I think I gave everything I could. It is also important to get new stimulation and develop myself further.”
The following interview was translated from German. It has been edited and condensed.
What qualities does the house orchestra in Paris bring to Wagner, and on what aspects have you worked over the years?
Not everyone may share my opinion, but my feeling is that Wagner should not necessarily be played heavy and German. We know that he spent a great deal of time in Paris, which was the mecca of opera culture.
A French orchestra has per se more transparency and clarity than a German orchestra. The winds are more flexible and smoother. But also the strings, since they are not played as intensively, provide an opportunity for the singers not to constantly have to force [their voices].
Nevertheless, one shouldn’t work with a French orchestra on French but rather German qualities. They don’t lose their French qualities as a result. That was our collaborative work; it developed increasingly into the orchestra’s DNA.
How has your perspective on the “Ring” changed over the years?
A lot has changed because I was in Bayreuth in the meantime. One learns there to conduct Wagner differently than one otherwise would — above all, the “Ring” and “Parsifal.” That lies with the acoustics. The proportions between the woodwinds and horns — which are usually too loud in the pit — and the strings are ideally balanced. One gets a very different feeling for the relief of the score.
The other thing is the sense of tempo. Most conductors, myself included, tend to bathe themselves in the sound. In Bayreuth, one notices that it doesn’t carry if a tempo is too slow.
To what extent do you adapt to a given director?
A conductor and director have to work with mutual respect. It should always be music theater — music stands in the foreground — and nevertheless it should be good theater.
I have never worked with Calixto Bieito, but after seeing [his production of Aribert Reimann’s] “Lear” at Garnier, it was clear to me and Stéphane Lissner [director of the Paris Opera] that this is an exciting aesthetic. He is not someone who presents a finished concept that rather brings evocations that result in an overall picture.
I am also very pleased that we are trying to cultivate a new generation of Wagner singers — not no-names, but people who are fresh. Iain Paterson is still a relatively new Wotan, Martina Serafin a new Brünnhilde. Of course we also have Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek, which I am very happy about in “Die Walküre.”
How have you been affected by the strikes? Is this a warning to the rest of Europe?
As a foreigner in this country, it is hard for me to offer an opinion. But I stated in a public letter to the culture minister that the higher the retirement age, the more the quality of the musicians suffers. Most of all with instruments like solo horn or solo trumpet or choral singers.
One can say that there are such conditions abroad, but I think this is part of the quality that this system guarantees — that we could always have the best people at the right age.
In Vienna, the role of music director is being redefined so that you will be more involved in overall management. What challenges lie ahead there?
The challenge is how to manage a repertory company, where one presents up to 60 titles a year. In Paris, it is about 20. How does one deal with the limited rehearsal situation? How does one manage the ensemble?
And of course there is this wonderful orchestra, which has a very different playing tradition. There is a lot to discover, and I am very much looking forward to it.
In the coming years, the Vienna State Opera has to open itself to a bigger audience. One has a very faithful audience, and a tourist audience, but more young people have to be drawn in.