BEL CANTO BELLE
Feted in Europe, Australian soprano Jessica Pratt is set to make her Melbourne debut, writes
WHEN Jessica Pratt arrived in Italy and set about making a career in the native home of opera, she had lessons with renowned Italian soprano Renata Scotto on some of the finer details of Lucia di Lammermoor. The famous mad scene of Donizetti’s opera concludes with a stunning top Eflat and Pratt, who was learning the role, could reach the note but not yet fill a hall with it.
“Don’t sing it if you can’t hold the note,” Pratt recalls Scotto telling her. The lessons were taking place at the National Academy of St Cecilia in Rome, where Scotto was instructing the young Australian soprano on matters of interpretation and phrasing, but not necessarily of technique. Of the E-flat money note, Scotto told her: “You’ll have to work it out yourself.”
We are yet to hear Pratt as Lucia in this country, but we can take it as comment that she’s impressive in the role. She has played the melodiously deranged bride at the opera’s birthplace, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, and at Italy’s premier opera house, La Scala in Milan. One review of the Milan performances described Pratt as the Lucia of our times. She has won a coveted award for sopranos, the Siola d’Oro, a “golden swallow” encrusted with diamonds, and an Italian presidential medal for services to coloratura.
Like Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland before her, Pratt has made Lucia her calling card in Europe. In fact, she has made a speciality of bel canto Italiano, the wonderfully tuneful operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini from the early 19th century. She now lives in the picturesque city of Como, not far from the lake, and within commuting distance of Europe’s great opera houses: the Royal Opera in London, the Vienna State Opera, La Fenice in Venice.
Pratt is steadily enlarging her repertoire and is about to undertake her first Violetta, in Verdi’s La Traviata, with Victorian Opera this month. Conducted by Richard Mills, the 1992 production was designed by Czech sceneographer Josef Svoboda. It’s known as the “Traviata of the mirrors” because of the large mirror suspended above the stage to enhance its visual splendour.
She had been engaged to sing with Opera Australia in 2012, but the advertised debut — as Leila in The Pearlfishers — didn’t eventuate because of other commitments. So her Victorian Violetta will be her first professional performance in Australia.
“It’s a role that I’ve been asked a lot to do in Europe,” she says, having arrived in Melbourne for several weeks of rehearsals. “In the past, I hadn’t wanted to broach it just yet because (Violetta) is a bit more lyric that I usually do. After meeting with Richard and talking it over with him, I decided that this would be the best opportunity to debut this role.”
Pratt, 34, was born in Bristol and moved to Australia at age 11, growing up in Toowoomba, Brisbane and Sydney. After winning the Australian Singing Competition in 2003, she based herself in Italy: first stop Rome, where Gianluigi Gelmetti (then chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) invited her to study at the Rome Opera.
A performance of Rossini’s opera Tancredi with Mariella Devia and Daniela Barcellona, with Gelmetti conducting, set the bar high for the young singer. She wanted to learn the bel canto technique that she heard so brilliantly executed in that performance.
Bel canto, or “beautiful singing”, describes both a style and a skill-set: a smooth legato line, pure tone and agile coloratura. The vertigo-inducing effects that singers produce with their voice means the style is sometimes compared with acrobatics.
“And with the music, there’s very little underneath you in the orchestra, so you are very exposed,” Pratt explains. “So the minute a note goes out of place, or something’s wrong, you can hear it. There’s a lot of stress to keep everything in place.”
Pratt studied with Scotto at the Santa Cecilia academy, and worked on her bel canto technique with Lella Cuberli in Milan. But there were a few lean years before she obtained her meal ticket with Lucia.
She had entered the AsLiCo competition for young singers, and didn’t win, but successfully auditioned for a 2007 production of Lucia at the Teatro Sociale in Como.
“From there I jumped into a Lucia in Zurich and a Lucia in Bologna,” she says. “When you’re in Europe, and there is stuff going on all the time, there are so many opportunities.”
Elsewhere in the bel canto repertoire, she has sung the coloratura leads in Bellini’s La Sonnambula and I Puritani, and appeared in modern-day revivals of some of Rossini’s lesserknown pieces. The Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the composer’s birthplace, has remounted the operas with scholarly editions of the scores and often with superlative casts. (Visitors to Pesaro boast of sightings of tenor superstar Juan Diego Florez, between their visits to the gelataria.) Pratt has appeared there in Adelaide di Borgogna and Ciro in Babilonia; in August she will be in a new production of Aureliano
IN EUROPE, THERE IS STUFF GOING ON ALL THE TIME; SO MANY OPPORTUNITIES
in Palmira. She has also appeared opposite Florez in William Tell, in Lima.
There is more to Rossini than The Barber of Seville. “That’s one tiny thing he did, and his main body of work was serious opera,” Pratt says. “Rossini seria is not taken seriously, and it’s really incredible music. Otello is amazing.”
Verdi’s Violetta is one of the best-loved roles in all of opera: the high-society prostitute who discovers true love just as she is dying from tuberculosis. This opera has it all: the spirited party scene of Act I with its unforgettable tunes, hurt and humiliation in the second act, and tragedy and forgiveness in the last.
Pratt says her study of bel canto has given her the foundational technique for the more emotionally charged roles that Verdi gives his sopranos, although she says singers these days are pigeonholed — coloraturas here, dramatic sopranos there — more than they were in the past. “I think it’s really healthy to have a good technical base, to then sing everything else,” says Pratt in terms that Sutherland, a stickler for technique, would surely approve.
“As you age, your voice changes, you get more of a centre, and more control of your technique. The problem with more dramatic roles is not the notes per se; it’s having to sing angry notes when you are in the middle of your voice, or singing angry when you’re at the top. It’s learning to control your emotions on stage. I think that takes a long time.”
Pratt will be joined on stage by baritone Jose Carbo as Giorgio Germont and Italian tenor Alessandro Scotto di Luzio as Alfredo. The tenor has previously appeared opposite Pratt in Lucia, and in one of the charity concerts that Pratt organised in Treviso: thousand of euros have been raised to support people with cancer.
Another of Pratt’s extra-curricular activities is care for rescue dogs. Her own pooch, Fede, was a badly treated stray and came to Pratt with a missing eye, no teeth and a “leg hanging off”. “The vet said he may only live a couple of months and I have had him for 2½ years,” she says. Fede travels with Pratt when she has performances in Italy, and she talks to him on Skype when she is in far-off Australia.
Pratt and her dog have even been the subject of a children’s book about music, Un palcoscenico per due (A Stage for Two) by Mauro Neri, in which Fede goes to the opera.
“He loves Bellini and Rossini, but is not terribly keen on Verdi,” Pratt says. “He tends to leave the room when I sing Verdi.” La Traviata is at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, May 17-29.
Soprano Jessica Pratt
attends a costume fitting for the Victorian
Opera’s La Traviata