ROH ‘Carmen’ with the amazing Aigul Akhmetshina


Royal Opera House, London



Damiano Michieletto is a director dedicated to subverting clichéd classics with provocative surprises, but with his Carmen these surprises are gentle and non-disruptive. I won’t spoil things by revealing his most striking departure from the text – which comes in the last minute – but it may be helpful to readers to know the rationale behind an addition he has made to the cast.

The first person we see is an old lady in a funeral mantilla who silently paces the stage before vengefully brandishing a playing card. That, we learn later, is the card of death, and the gesture prefigures Carmen’s much later discovery of the same card – a premonition of her own death – while she is on the run. The old lady is Don Jose’s mother, and Michieletto wants us to know that she stands for all the traditional virtues her errant son has abjured.

Michieletto is an admirer of Matthew Bourne’s balletic adaptation of the story in The Car Man, and that admiration is reflected throughout Michieletto’s version, much of which takes place in and around a rough shack by the roadside. We are in Seville in the Seventies, the sun is beating down, and as the curtain rises children are everywhere, playing games and singing. Indeed, some of them signal the continuity between acts with giant placards, a witty touch which in no way undermines the gritty realism of the action.

Carmen Aigul Akhmetshina Zuniga Blaise Malana ROH Carmen (c) 2024 Camilla GreenwellCarmen (Aigul Akhmetshina) ©Camilla Greenwell

This is rendered believable thanks primarily to the Royal Opera’s wonderful chorus, who under the baton of Antonello Manacorda incarnate citizens and smugglers as though born to do so, and thanks also to a unique combination of design and lighting. Paolo Fantin’s sets are lit by Alessandro Carletti in a way I have not seen before, with glowing colours on an intensely black background creating a kind of hyper-reality. The big arias and duets grow naturally out of the drama, with no sense of a progression of pop hits.

There are no weak links in the cast. Kostas Smoriginas is a suitably swaggering Escamillo, Sarah Dufresne and Gabriele Kupsyte bring infectious zip to the female trios with Carmen, and Olga Kulchynska invests the put-upon Micaëla with haunting pathos. And the star-crossed central pair seem made to destroy each other.

Piotr Beczala’s Don Jose is beautifully sung and very movingly characterised, a hapless herbivore to Aigul Akhmetshina’s carnivorous Carmen – but so would any lover be to this extraordinary figure, who describes herself offstage as an ‘ordinary girl from a Russian village’. She contemptuously prowls the stage like a panther, and her mesmerizing sound has a burnished perfection similar to – if slightly lower-pitched than – that of the young Angela Gheorghiu. This is a Carmen who will be talked about for many years to come.


One thought on “ROH ‘Carmen’ with the amazing Aigul Akhmetshina

  1. What a captivating review! Michieletto’s fresh take on “Carmen” sounds both intriguing and respectful of the original work’s spirit. The addition of Don Jose’s mother and the subtle nod to Matthew Bourne’s “The Car Man” are fascinating touches that seem to deepen the narrative without overshadowing it. The praise for Aigul Akhmetshina’s performance is particularly compelling—her portrayal of Carmen as a powerful, almost predatory figure, coupled with her rich vocal prowess, sounds like a performance that will indeed be remembered. The combination of innovative staging, strong chorus work, and standout performances from the entire cast must make this production a must-see. Thank you for sharing such a vivid account!

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