Wednesday 20 May 2015

Bel canto delight - Jessica Pratt in recital

Jessica Pratt - photo Jonathan Rose
Jessica Pratt - photo Jonathan Rose
Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Massenet, Gounod, Bachelet, Dell'Acqua, Delibes, Thomas
Jessica Pratt and Vincenzo Scalera; Rosenblatt Recitals at Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 19 2015
Star rating: 5.0
Welcome opportunity to hear British-born soprano in a bel canto programme

The soprano Jessica Pratt is British born, raised in Australia and Italian trained, she studied with Gianluigi Gelmetti, Renata Scotto and Lella Cuberli, and her career has very much been based in continental Europe with few, if any, opportunities for British audiences to hear her in the bel canto repertoire for which she has become known. So it was a double pleasure to be able to hear her in recital, with pianist Vincenzo Scalera, at the Rosenblatt Recital at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 19 May 2015. Their programme consisted of songs by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Massenet, Gounod, Bachelet, Dell'Acqua and Delibes, along with arias from Bellini's I puritani and Thomas' Hamlet, carefully organised so that the Italian songs led into the Bellini aria at the end of part one, with the French songs in part two concluding with the Thomas aria.

Songs by early 19th century Italian opera composers are rarely as complex as their operatic arias, but all require a strong technique to bring them off. In her selection of arias by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, Jessica Pratt chose ones which in the main veered more towards opera with some being almost as complex as an operatic cavatina.

She opened with a pair of songs by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). Written in 1857, La separazione started as quite a simple lyric song but as the emotions developed (it is a sad piece about a woman leaving her native land for love), then the work really opened up though Rossini's writing remained lyric without too much elaboration. La fioraia Fiorentina (from Peches de vielliesse 1857-1860) combined a rather perky description of a flower girl, with her sad reasons for working, with Rossini developing the some into something quite elaborate complete with cadenza.

Jessica Pratt and Vincenzo Scalera at the Wigmore Hall - photo Jonathan Rose
Jessica Pratt and Vincenzo Scalera at the Wigmore Hall - photo Jonathan Rose
With warm vibrato-led tones and powerful reserves, Jessica Pratt's voice combined flexibility with surprising strength, and an ability to fill and shape a line with admirable delicacy. It is a very Italian sound, which is not surprising given her training. Her voice is admirably uniform, with the vocal tone consistent to the very top. On the concert platform her demeanour was inclined to grand divadom, but this combined with a lovely sense of character when performing. She gave each song (and aria) a very particular dramatic feel, and there was a strong sense of communication, that she was singing to you.

Il barcaiolo by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) comes from his Nuits d'ete a Pausilippe written in 1836. It starts as a lyrical piece about a woman with her lover the boatman, and anticipation makes the soprano get very perky but there is a moment of intense, almost operatic drama too. Donizetti's Una lagrima (from Matinee Musicale of 1841) started with a dramatic gesture, but then developed into an intense prayer where her tone was perhaps too fragile, losing a sense of line, but some strong operatic moments gave us a chance to appreciate Jessica Pratt's beautifully well filled and shapely line. The final Donizetti song, La zingara (1842) was very much a character piece about a gypsy, with plenty of dark tints to the melody and lots of delightful twiddly bits.

Vincenzo Scalera and Jessica Pratt at Wigmore Hall - credit Jonathan Rose
Vincenzo Scalera and Jessica Pratt at Wigmore Hall - credit Jonathan Rose
A pair of songs by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) followed, both from Sei Ariette (1829). Per pieta, bell'idol mio was rather affecting; more song-like, it still veered towards the operatic at times. the Malinconia, Nifa gentile was a short piece with a lovely urgency to it. These songs do not sing themselves, and Jessica Pratt's expressive manner and stylish delivery really filled them with vibrant life.

Jessica Pratt and Vincenzo Scalera finished part one, with Qui la cove sua soave, Elvira's mad scene from Act Two of Bellini's I Puritani (premiered in Paris 1835). In the cavatina she combined firm yet delicate lines with a nice sense of rubato and a lovely shaping of the phrases, then in the cavatina there was still a sense of fragility but still with strength to the line and a lovely way with the fioriture.

Having finished the first half with an opera by an Italian composer premiered in Paris, we stayed in France with a programme of French song. And we got a new dress too, Jessica Pratt having changed her stylish but sober black number, for a shocking pink one.

Ouvre tes yeux (1878) by Jules Massenet (1842-1912) sets a dialogue between man and woman, with his contribution nicely ardent, and hers more dramatic. Serenade by Charles Gounod (1818-1893), a setting of Victor Hugo from 1855-57, is one of his best known songs. A lovely strophic song, with swaying accompaniment and the occasional elaboration in the vocal line, there was a lovely simple directness to Jessica Pratt's performance.

In French melodie of this period words have become very important, and often the poetry was rather better than that used in Italian song. Whilst Jessica Pratt's French diction was admirable, I did not thing that she made enough of the words.

Alfred Bachelet (1864-1944) was a prolific song composer, his song Chere nuit was written in 1912 and was strongly late Romantic in its rich harmonic language, but quite traditional in structure with some finely rapturous moments. Eva Dell'Acqua (1856-1930) wrote Villanelle in 1893. A charming piece, with a rippling piano part and an ardent vocal line with occasional forays into coloratura, there were strong hints of more popular styles. Jessica Pratt treated the song with care and attention, and was superb in the showier moments.

With Les filles de Cadix (1844) by Leo Delibes (1836-1891), setting Alfred de Musset, things get a bit more operatic and Jessica Pratt was suitably seductive in her manner. There was some fine coloratura too, but she used this to seduce too.

Part two concluded with another mad scene, that of Ophelia from the 1868 adaptation of Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896). Here was a richly voiced woman, not  little girl, but stylishly done with fabulous control and some killer top notes.

Throughout the programme Jessica Pratt was finely supported by Vincenzo Scalera's magisterial yet sympathetic accompaniment. On this showing, I do hope that we get to see Jessica Pratt in some bel canto repertoire in the UK soon. The audience was rightly enthusiastic, and we were treated to two encores. O luce di quest’anima from Donizetti's Linda di Chamonix and Glitter and be gay from Bernstein's Candide. This latter showed that our soprano not only has a killer technique, but a sense of humour too!

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