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A tale of two Carmens

We talk to Rihab Chaieb and Aigul Akhmetshina to find out what makes Bizet's defiant heroine so compelling...

This year will see not one, but two exceptional singers take on the role of Carmen – opera’s greatest rebel.

The double run during Festival 2024 will see Rihab Chaieb and Aigul Akhmetshina take on this celebrated role. So what is it that makes this defiant heroine so compelling?

It’s been a while since Bizet’s Carmen was last staged at Glyndebourne, and even longer since we commissioned a new production of the opera. We know that Diane Paulus’ searing new take on the story will be a hot ticket this summer, and we’ve scheduled two runs of the production at the start and end of the Festival, giving ample opportunity to catch it. Each run has a different main cast, and we are very excited about the two singers in the title role.

Rihab Chaieb will headline the May and June shows, with Aigul Akhmetshina taking over in August. Both singers have appeared in the Festival before, Rihab as Mércèdes in our last Carmen (2015) and Flora in La traviata (2017), and Aigul as Varvara in Káťa Kabanová (2021). Since their last Glyndebourne appearances, both have been in high demand at houses around the world, particularly in the role of Carmen. Rihab has sung the part in Germany, the US and twice in Canada. Meanwhile Aigul is calling this season ‘50 shades of Carmen’ – currently playing the role in ENO’s Six Deaths of Maria Callas, and with productions coming up at the Met and the Royal Opera House.

Images: Rihab Chaieb (Photo: Timothy Fadek) and Aigul Akhmetshina (Photo: Lera Nurgalieva).

As such, the two singers are perfectly placed to tell us what makes Carmen so attractive to audiences. For both of them, it’s Carmen herself who makes this story so captivating: ‘From the very first seconds of her entrance she commands the stage, oozes self-confidence, is unashamed of her sexuality and expresses herself freely’ says Rihab. ‘She doesn’t let anyone boss her around, she’s in total control of her choices and will stick to her way of life regardless of the cost.’

For Aigul there’s an ambiguity about the character that lends itself to creativity, ‘it’s one of the rare operas which you can interpret in so many different ways and it will not harm the music’ she says. ‘That’s the reason why people love to put their own touch, and their own vision into this opera and into the character – nobody can clearly answer “who is Carmen?”’. Rihab agrees, ‘I think Carmen embodies many different aspects. She’s both the yin and the yang: she’s sensual and feminine but also fierce, courageous and has masculine energy’. For Aigul, it’s also important to avoid clichés when playing the part, ‘I don’t like when people portray her only as a “sexy woman”. That’s one of her powers but it’s not all that there is to her. She’s such a complex character.’

The complexity of the character means every performance of Carmen can be different, allowing performers to channel their own emotions into the part, as Aigul tells us: ‘when I was performing in Munich, I was playful. I had such a flirty mood and I was dancing around like a butterfly. Then I had to go on stage the day my father died. And it was a very different, difficult performance, a very dark performance. It’s like the music carried me through.’

It is of course Bizet’s music that helps to make the character so compelling, ‘the score is filled with memorable melodies that captivate the listener’ says Rihab, ‘Carmen has several iconic arias which showcase her rebellious, free-spirited nature. These melodies make us empathise with her. The musical backdrop of colourful orchestration and Spanish rhythms contributes to Carmen’s appeal and draws us towards her. How can you not root for Carmen?’

Image: Aigul Akhmetshina as Varvara in Káťa Kabanová, 2021. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

The opera is also unusual in its form, incorporating a lot more spoken dialogue than you might expect. ‘Carmen is not an opera for me, it’s a cabaret show, it’s a theatre play’ says Aigul. ‘For me the role is not a challenging one to sing, it is about acting. We have to live the story.’

Carmen is often a very physical role for performers, and this production will be no exception, featuring choreography from Jasmin Vardimon. ‘If there’s one physical role in opera, it’s Carmen. She dances, she fights, she fights back’ says Rihab. Aigul agrees, and relishes the opportunity to work on choreography, ‘I love dancing on stage – it’s an extra challenge. And actually, I get a bit upset if Carmen doesn’t have a chance to dance!’

Bringing this new production to the stage is Broadway director Diane Paulus, and working with her will be a new experience for both of the singers. ‘I’m eager to delve into Carmen’s psychology with her and discover her take on such a strong female character’ says Rihab. Aigul adds that ‘It will be interesting to see a woman’s perspective on Carmen because all the productions I have done so far have been directed by men’.

Thanks to Glyndebourne’s unusually long rehearsal process, the singers will have ample opportunity to dig into their characters. ‘This time gives us singers the peace of mind to try new things and discover different ways to approach a role or a scene’ says Rihab. ‘That way, when opening night comes around, we are relaxed and confident because we know every minute detail has been taken care of.’ For Aigul, this extended time helps to find new ways into the character, but also to work out relationships between characters and add depth to the performance. ‘It is great having time to build relationships with your colleagues’ she says. ‘Because in the end the audience is supposed to believe us that we are absolutely in love at one moment, and that we hate each other the next. We need time to go through all the layers of it.’

You can see the results of this process this summer. And if you’ve seen Carmen a hundred times before, or you’re completely new to it, you will find plenty to keep you entertained. Or as Rihab puts it, ‘this opera gives everything a newcomer or an expert fan wants: a gripping story, earworm hits, a femme fatale, dancing, drama and sex!’

Written by Andrew Batty, Glyndebourne’s Digital Content Editor.

This article is taken from the latest issue of Recit, our Members’ magazine.

Photo: Rihab Chaieb (left) as Mercédès with Eliana Pretorian as Frasquita in Festival 2015’s production of Carmen directed by David McVicar. Photo by Robert Workman.

Carmen is on stage 16 May – 24 August 2024 – book now

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