One of the most highly anticipated concerts in the coming months will be the return of Andris Nelsons to the Boston Symphony podium. The presence of the music director designate would itself be noteworthy, but this time the program makes it doubly so: He will lead a single concert performance of Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome.” It will be his first time conducting opera in Symphony Hall.
In a way, Boston has Nelsons’s proficiency as an opera conductor to thank for his relationship with the BSO. It was during his run at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, conducting Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” in March 2011, that he got an urgent request to step in for James Levine at Carnegie Hall. That performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony — surely one of the most auspicious BSO debuts in the orchestra’s history — seemed to lead almost inexorably to his ascension to the music director post.
Since then, Nelsons has been gradually revealing his artistic self to us, like a matryoshka doll. There were a few pieces at Tanglewood’s 75th-anniversary concert in 2012, as well as a magisterial concert of Stravinsky and Brahms soon after. A provocative Tchaikovsky Fifth was paired with Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto last March, showing how skilled an accompanist he is. Finally, in his October appearance at Symphony Hall — his first since his appointment — he demonstrated his affinity for Wagner with a gorgeous reading of the “Siegfried Idyll.”
But conducting opera is, in certain important ways, quite different than leading orchestral repertoire. It requires a specific brand of accompanying skill, one that supports singers without taxing them, makes room for the text, and ensures that the orchestra is nevertheless an equal (or near-equal) partner in the unfolding drama.
Those skills are needed with special urgency in “Salome,” a volatile and dissonant masterpiece based on Oscar Wilde’s play. The opera represents one of Strauss’s farthest journeys into modernism, and both the action and the music shocked audiences at its 1905 premiere. It’s also, in many places, quite loud: The music critic Alex Ross once wrote that in the title role, “a soprano goes up against one of the great monster orchestras in opera history.” Just getting the balances right can trip up an experienced conductor, never mind the long list of duties that follow.
So what might Nelsons bring to the BSO’s performance?
There are a few clues, one of which is a DVD of Nelsons leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the most famous orchestral excerpt from “Salome”: the Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome’s legendarily erotic performance that induces Herod to grant her demand for the head of John the Baptist. With a kind of manic glee, the conductor almost tears into the music with the kind of wide, sweeping gestures that are becoming familiar to BSO audiences. It’s exciting, and Nelsons does a great job capturing the edgy back and forth of the dance, though the Concertgebouw’s ultra-refined sound doesn’t quite convey the music’s lasciviousness.
‘You have to open all your insides and your feelings. . . . But therefore it’s dangerous.’
But perhaps the best guide lies in Nelsons’s own words, in a video made by the Royal Opera House in London. It was made for an October 2013 production of “Elektra,” the opera with which Strauss followed “Salome.” They are in many ways a matched pair, “Elektra” having a similarly dissonant, high-octane score, as well as an unshakable sense of anxiety and dread.
The first thing you learn in the video is the importance Nelsons places on the character of the music. He is seen rehearsing a particularly menacing passage in the cellos. “For me it’s always very important that we create the atmosphere that the music requires,” he says in a voice-over. But the orchestra is playing it too precisely, so he stops and demonstrates to the players, with a series of funny yet completely effective vocalisms, the intimidating sound that the passage requires. “It’s like running from the dog,” he tells them. “Or the wife,” he adds, to much laughter.
Even more telling are his thoughts on the psychological toll that opera can take on a conductor like Nelsons, who sees it as his job to get inside the emotions of the characters, even in works as dark as “Elektra,” or “Salome.”
“You have to open all your insides and your feelings,” he says. “But therefore it’s dangerous. At night, sometimes you can’t sleep because you [are] just . . . caught in the stories. You’re obsessed. So you have to be careful that you balance your identity, who you are as a person.
“But all the great operas . . . it’s the same idea,” he continues. “For me, I choose to be physically and emotionally involved — not controlling the process from outside, but I try to be in. Which is probably burning myself more than you should. But that is the way I think you should make music, is to be emotionally very open and involved.”