Having the name Aida can surely only help if your career choice is ‘soprano’! However, Verdi’s heroine isn’t in Aida Garifullina’s repertoire, for the Kazan-born singer is building a career on lighter, lyric soprano roles, especially those featuring demanding coloratura. In 2013, she made her debut at the Mariinsky Opera, but it was her 2013 Operalia win in Verona which brought her to worldwide attention, an ensemble position at the Wiener Staatsoper and a prestigious Decca recording contract.
Garifullina was given a Rosenblatt Recital at Wigmore Hall in 2014 (review), a very promising debut where she sang a lot of Russian arias and songs. That recital included an aria from the prologue of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden, which she is currently rehearsing in Paris ahead of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new production which opens on Easter Saturday. Rimsky’s operas are rarely performed outside Russia which is puzzling given his melodic vocal writing. “I love the music by Rimsky-Korsakov,” explains Garifullina. “His music is very close to me, to my nature. It has so many beautiful oriental themes in it. That's why I chose so many arias and romances by this great Russian composer for my debut album. I believe and hope that opera lovers will fall in love with his music.”
Tcherniakov is another Rimsky advocate. When we spoke ahead of his production of Prince Igor at Dutch National Opera earlier this season, he confided, with an impish grin, that The Snow Maiden contains much better music than Borodin’s epic. He evidently loves Rimsky’s operas – The Snow Maiden follows significant productions of The Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh (Dutch National Opera) and The Tsar’s Bride (Staatsoper Berlin) which were both updated to a modern setting. Garifullina explains that this is the first time she has worked with the director. “I had heard a lot about him and his successful productions, but never met him personally before now. And here we are in Paris rehearsing one of my most favourite operas by Rimsky-Korsakov, and I really enjoy this rehearsal process.”
Tcherniakov is well known for his long rehearsal periods which are often intense and demanding for his casts, but his attention to detail often draws extraordinary performances, as in his Iolanta for the Opéra de Paris last season. “I like the way Dmitri works,” Garifullina confides, “very thoroughly on each movement, each nuance, phrase and facial expression.
“The story of The Snow Maiden in this production is completely different from the original story in the poem by Ostrovsky. All the characters are more realistic. This production shows us real people with their problems: different characters, love, envy, passion, anger, selfishness. They all think that the Snow Maiden cannot love, she is too cold. But at the end we realize that she was the only one person in the whole story who was able to love and carried this love throughout the opera.”
The Snow Maiden marks Garifullina's Opéra de Paris debut. She clearly loves being in the city. “Every time I visit Paris I think about the way Ernest Hemingway described the city: ‘Paris - The holiday which is always with you’. It's true. I'm a very romantic person, so I think I could live in this city of romance. And then move to my other favourite city: London. I believe, this will happen very soon!”
Her recently released debut disc mostly concentrated on Garifullina’s Russian repertoire, including the Queen of Shamakha in The Golden Cockerel, a role she was invited by Valery Gergiev to sing at the Mariinsky a few years ago. The tessitura of the queen’s seductive Hymn to the Sun (one of the most famous parts of Rimsky’s score) is perilously high. Is this where Aida’s voice is at its most comfortable, I wondered. “After I sang the whole role of the Queen of Shemakha at the stage, I could say, yes, it is comfortable for me to sing these two arias alone. To sing the whole opera, to learn it properly – this was a big challenge. I worked very hard on each note. Each word. And it was worth it.”
Garifullina enjoys the Russian song repertoire too, although confesses she performs fewer recitals than she’d like. “My diary is so full with solo concerts with orchestra and, of course, operatic engagements that there are not many recitals scheduled at the moment. But I have wonderful memories of my Wigmore Hall debut recital and I hope to be able to find time to return soon.”
On her debut disc, Garifullina includes a few songs by Rachmaninov, Rimsky and Tchaikovsky, but there’s a quirky fact behind the closing number, Midnight in Moscow. There, she sings to a ‘backing track’ by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra as recorded on the famous 1962 Mercury disc Balalaika Favourites! “That was a fun experience!” she laughs. “And it only took me a couple of takes. It is a song with which I was grew up. You know, Midnight in Moscow is a kind of hymn in Russia... actually in the whole world, because everyone knows it and also people in many different countries sing it in their mother tongue.”
Music, it seems, was in Aida’s blood from birth. “My mother is a conductor. She discovered my voice and my passion for singing when I was three years old and started to give me lessons. When I was five, she took me to my first vocal competition in Moscow. It was a very famous TV song competition at this time. I had a real joy to sing for the big audience. So I grew up surrounded by music and dreamed to become a singer one day. And this day has come. My parents always wanted me to sing in the opera and now they come to all my premieres and concerts, and give me the best support!”
Imagine though, waking up one day and discovering that she was a mezzo-soprano – just for the day. When asked what one role Aida would want to sing, her response is emphatic: “I would love to sing Carmen!!! I love this type of woman: independent, full of passion, love and charisma. In her, I see a piece of me!”