The Softer Side of Puccini’s Musetta

The Softer Side of Puccini’s Musetta


“She likes the ‘dolce vita’ life, but somewhere inside she is different,” Ms. Garifullina said. “I know people who are similar. They like parties and lots of friends but they are intelligent and take care of people they love.”

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Ms. Garifullina as Musetta at the State Opera in Vienna.

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Michael Poehn/Wiener Staatsoper

For Ms. Garifullina’s former voice teacher, Claudia Visca, the soprano brings a “gentle, lilting” quality to the role that distinguishes her from other performers. “You often find productions of ‘Bohème’ where Musetta is a bit tough,” she said. “It’s nice that Aida is able to show her graciousness, which makes the character even more desirable.”

Ms. Garifullina’s appearance in “La Bohème” follows an acclaimed Opéra Bastille debut last season as the title character in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “La Fille de Neige.” She described the collaboration with the stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov as a breakthrough for her as an actress because of the detail in which he worked on the character’s emotions.

“There were positions in which I have never sung,” she admitted. “I realized that I would give it my all.”

Born in Kazan, the capital of the republic of Tatarstan, about 500 miles east of Moscow, Ms. Garifullina was already gathering stage experience at age 5 as the youngest participant in a nationally televised voice competition, performing a routine that her mother, a choral conductor, had prepared. (Her parents had always dreamed that their daughter would be an opera singer, although her name — Aida, which means “a gift” in Arabic — was not chosen with that particular goal in mind.)

By 13, she was singing classical concerts in both Kazan and Moscow. She moved to Western Europe four years later to study with the veteran tenor Siegfried Jerusalem and then with Ms. Visca at the University of Music in Vienna.

Ms. Visca, who studied in Philadelphia with Eufemia Giannini-Gregory — the teacher of the legendary soprano Anna Moffo — said that Ms. Garifullina arrived with “all the right ingredients.”

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Ms. Garifullina’s first album, which bears her name, won an Echo Klassik Award in Germany this fall for best solo recording.

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Franziska Krug/Getty Images

It was a question of “putting her potential and talent into ‘bel canto’ singing,” she said, noting a dark sound even in the upper range that reminds her of Ms. Moffo. “Aida is fearless. She got to the point where the high notes just bloom.”

The soprano’s international breakthrough came in 2013 when she won first prize at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition, which led to a contract at the Vienna State Opera as an ensemble member. “It was clear already in the first round that I would make her an offer,” recalled the house’s general director, Dominique Meyer, marveling at the “big, beautiful sound” that emanates from her small frame.

Mr. Flórez cited the soprano’s “natural charisma” as well as the acting talent and telegenic looks that complement her vocal skills. “This is important nowadays, especially when you have cameras pointed at you all the time,” he said.

Ms. Garifullina has also reached out to uninitiated listeners through digital technology. A video of the song “White Bird” by the Russian composer and producer Igor Krutoy, posted in 2013, has received over a million views on YouTube.

“I want to expand the boundaries so that as many people as possible love opera,” she said.

Her debut album tells a personal story by placing folk songs alongside mostly Russian operatic repertoire. The lullaby “Alluki,” set to Tatar poetry, allowed the soprano to share her native Tatar-Russian culture with the world. “Our music has incredibly beautiful oriental melodies and melismas,” she said.

Arias such as “Hymn to the Sun” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel,” which Ms. Garifullina performed at the Marinsky Theater in 2014, are also not well known in the West. The album also includes “Je Veux Vivre” from Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” which she considers her “signature aria,” and the “Bell Song” from Delibes’s “Lakmé,” which she sang, transposed down a tone, as the French-American soprano Lily Pons in “Florence Foster Jenkins.”

She looks back on appearing alongside Hollywood stars as a high point of her career but finds more than enough artistic stimulation in standard operatic performance. Although the soprano doesn’t identify personally with the character of Musetta, the end of “La Bohème” brings Ms. Garifullina to tears every time. “The music says everything,” she said. “One doesn’t have to act that much.”

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