BEL CANTO BELLE

Feted in Europe, Aus­tralian so­prano Jes­sica Pratt is set to make her Mel­bourne de­but, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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

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