Alice Farnham, who trained in St Petersburg and has conducted at Covent Garden, is currently Music Director of the Welsh National Youth Opera for their 2013 production of Britten’s Paul Bunyan.

Lucretia is being staged as part of a mini-festival of operas and concerts marking Britten’s centenary year.

It’s the tragic story of the rape of the virtuous Lucretia by the Etruscan Tarquinius in Rome in around 500 BC, which became one of the reasons for the creation of the Roman republic. The fate of Lucretia is an important theme in European art and literature – it’s been picked up by Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Botticelli among others. And it remains, with its strong Christian message, a powerful and sometimes strongly debated story today. 

Photo: Titian's Tarquin and Lucretia1571, Wikipedia

Alice Lagnado met Farnham in London, just before she flew out to St Petersburg for rehearsals. Bubbling with enthusiasm about the prospect of working with the Mariinsky’s opera soloists - and returning to St Petersburg - she told Alice Lagnado how the project was born. 

“I was over at the Mariinsky Theatre in February, just watching rehearsals and catching up with friends, and I had some meetings with Valery Gergiev,” she explains. “He said he wanted to do a season to celebrate Britten’s centenary this month and decided that in November they’d also be performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the War Requiem, and The Turn of the Screw[among others], which are all in the Mariinsky Theatre repertoire now. And in addition to that, he wanted to do a performance of The Rape of Lucretia.”

I asked Alice how she came to an agreement with Gergiev on Lucretia, considering his famously packed schedule.

“I visited St Petersburg, and I also met with him quite a few times when he was conducting the London Symphony Orchestra,” she says. “He’s a very busy man, so meetings tend to be very short. So it’s good to have quite a few [meetings] and optimise your opportunities to get to speak to him, because there are a lot of people wanting a bit of him.” 

Did that mean she had to try hard to be at the right place at the right time? 

“Yes, and that included being around quite a lot when I didn’t get a chance to speak to him as well, but I made sure that he saw that I was around.” 

Farnham’s determination paid off, and she secured a date at the Concert Hall. Why this particular opera?

Farnham points to Britten’s relationship with Russia, which she says is important to recognise in the composer’s centenary year. Britten worked closely with several big names in the world of Russian classical music: Galina Vishnevskaya, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sviatoslav Richter and Mstislav Rostropovich. And the Britten season at the Mariinsky comes amid wider celebrations in Russia organised by the Britten-Pears Foundation and the British Council.  

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow is currently holding an exhibition of the Britten Pears art collection, Britten’s Artistic World, showing artworks collected by Britten including paintings by John Constable, while the first Russian-language biography of the composer will be published by the All-Russian State Library for Foreign Literature. 

The Rape of Lucretia is relatively easy to organise, says Farnham, because it only involves a chamber orchestra comprising 13 musicians and a cast of eight singers, and it’s also not super-long, at less than two hours. The hard bit is that it’s a concert performance, which means the drama needs to come through the music alone, she says. 

And it’s a challenge to bring the opera to the theatre for one day only. “All the pressure is on the one performance,” Farnham says. “I think doing a concert performance is something of an experiment. 

“If it really works as a concert performance, then who knows, maybe it would develop into something else. But yes, it’s much easier when you’ve got several performances to develop the production with.” 

At the same time, the opera is a “beautifully written piece of music,” she stresses, and some aspects are in fact easier to pull off in a concert performance.

“There’s a moment in the opera where Lucretia says, ‘now let’s fold the linen,’ and they start a trio with the female Chorus and Lucretia’s servants, Bianca and Lucia. 

“It’s not terribly difficult music, but in every production I’ve ever worked on or seen, there have been real problems with that moment. 

“They’ve got these sheets, and they’re not sure which way round they should do it, and they get in quite a muddle, and sometimes the music starts to take second place, and starts to fall apart, just because they’re folding these wretched linens,” she says, laughing. 

Photo: Alice Farnham in rehearsals of The Rape of Lucretia with Mariinsky Theatre opera soloists (from left to right) Olga Trifonova and Varvara Solovyeva (Natalia Razina)

Opera singers often work with voice coaches in order to improve their singing in a foreign language, and this is something that Farnham happily works on with the Russian singers, too. 

She feels that singing in English is not taken seriously enough in the opera world, even in the UK – and thinks there should be more coaching for singing in English in general, including for English people. But, as Farnham herself says, the Mariinsky singers have sung in English many times before, including Britten operas. “And actually although it’s quite challenging, [Britten] writes so beautifully for the voice and for the language that a lot of things have a natural rhythm and melody to them. Of all the British composers, he’s one of the greatest for that.” 

The opera is notably pared-down. “[Britten] is a master of orchestration, and he writes beautiful orchestration that’s nonetheless very powerful, even though it’s for a few instruments, they’re very cleverly combined,” says Farnham. “I think he was harking back to the beginnings of opera, rather than the grandiose, declamatory style that becomes so pompous sometimes.” 

The story of Lucretia is not an easy one to tackle. 

“There are times when I feel that it’s quite uncomfortable as a subject matter,” says Farnham. 

“I’ve read a lot about it recently and various performers who’ve had different ideas about whether Lucretia actually wanted this attack to happen and whether she’s somehow complicit in it. It’s a very daring subject. But I think Britten does it in a very sympathetic way.” 

For Russian singers, one of the opera’s difficulties lies in its wordiness, says Farnham. “Purely in technical terms, there’s a lot to get your mouth around, just pronouncing it and singing it and delivering the text, because it’s quite stylised text and if you’ve done a lot of Britten you get quite used to that style, but that’s tricky on a purely technical level.” 

Farnham very much enjoys working with Russian soloists. “I love Russian singers and I love their passion, and the way they deliver. 

“Occasionally, Britten can seem a little cold, although there’s definitely passion in Britten’s music, most certainly. But I think occasionally you get English performances that are a little bit too reserved, and I’m hoping that we’ll have a little less of the reserve, perhaps.” 

But Farnham doesn’t want to return to Russia purely for professional reasons – she’s a fan of the city, having spent three years here in the late 1990s, studying conducting at the Conservatory with Musin.

“It was a most wonderful time, a life-transforming time,” she says. Musin died, aged 95, when she was out there, and so Farnham continued her studies with his assistant Leonid Korchmar, who still works at the theatre.

“Like a lot of Russian musicians, he taught a very rigorous technique, but you felt that the technique was always in order to express yourself musically, it was never technique for technique’s sake,” she says. Farnham found this “very freeing” after her strict background and Oxford education – “far more expressive and emotional.” 

She lived in a student hostel - which at first seemed superb, with a piano in each room – but Farnham quickly realised that the walls were very thin. 

“I had Rachmaninov on one side and Tchaikovsky on the other, and I couldn’t work, concentrate, or sleep! There were quite a few cockroaches as well,” she says. 

Soon afterwards, however, she was asked to cat-sit by expats with beautiful apartments - and her days of dodging cockroaches were no more. 

Photo: Alice Farnham rehearsing The Rape of Lucretia at the Mariinsky Theatre (Natalia Razina)

When she first arrived, Farnham was a bit overwhelmed by some of the city’s Stalinist buildings – but within a couple of weeks that feeling fell away. Like many before her, she became besotted with the place: she attended concerts and operas and ballets nearly every night, learned to speak Russian, and thrived on her lessons with Musin. 

Later, Farnham returned to the UK, where she established herself in both the opera and ballet worlds, as well as working frequently with young singers and musicians.

Most recently, she joined a debate in London on the dearth of women in conducting. Related to that, she will teach a new conducting course for young women starting next spring at Morley College in Lambeth, designed to help more girls get into and stay in conducting. How does she feel about being described as a woman conductor? 

“I think that’s simply a numbers game, in that there are so few women actually conducting … people don’t tend to talk about a woman doctor any more, whereas maybe 30-40 years ago they did,” she says. “I hope that more women may come through, in which case that would be less of a discussion. But also … there have been remarks by two male Russian conductors that have not been particularly positive about the idea of women conductors and people have said that this is a cultural thing – and I don’t think that it is, really.”

“There have always been women conductors in Russia – not many of them, but Musin taught women conductors – he always had women in his class,” says Farnham. “I think the thing is that sometimes in Russia, people are bit more direct. They maybe say things that are politically incorrect, that people here might possibly think – but wouldn’t perhaps dare say.”