by Thomas May
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“Wishing your lover dead is a terrible way to come back to Seattle,” remarked Joyce DiDonato, her lips twisting in mock consternation as she faced the tumultuous applause following her outrageously over-the-top rendition of “Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro” from Giovanni Pacini’s 1845 dramma lirico Stella di Napoli (the title, too, of her 2014 release blending bel canto classics and rarities). The mezzo-soprano was in town to guest star with the Seattle Symphony as the orchestra launched its new season with music director Ludovic Morlot, his sixth with the SSO. Naturally, the occasion was aimed primarily at morale-boosting, accentuating the positive. And for that, DiDonato sustained just the right balance of charisma and grace, knowing exactly how to keep her audience in the palm of her hand without eclipsing her vivid collaboration with the players and Morlot.

I’ve always felt ambivalent about the focus on star power at opening-night galas – which obviously makes sense from the point of view of splash and publicity – because of the direction of attention away from the orchestra itself. But on Saturday evening the sheer pleasure of music-making that emanated from DiDonato and that was manifestly shared by the SSO became so infectious – and in a few moments, so touching – that it seemed an unbeatable curtain raiser for new adventures to come … the bubbles were in order. And DiDonato was on suberb form: the Pacini sounded like the bel canto equivalent of an Onion parody, all the gestures – ice-pick staccati, mental breakdown attacks – a funhouse mirror of exaggerated emotions.

Another signature piece, “Tanti affetti” from Rossini’s La donna del lago (the opera that helped usher in an orgy of Walter Scott adaptations), underscored DiDonato’s virtuosity not just of coloratura but of character, her ability to beam a state of mind or a ray of emotion with impeccable plausibility. DiDonato can usurp the jobs of stage directors and scenic designers with her phrasing alone. She negotiated shifts of register as nimbly as her change from elegant coral to pale lavender dresses during intermission.

The second half was given over to the Great American Songbook, with DiDonato now using a very visible microphone. There was unabashed sentimentality in a curiously busy (orchestrally) arrangement of “Danny Boy”, the singer reminding us that she hails from a midwestern Irish-American family, last name Flaherty, and more acting-with-the-voice in “I Feel Pretty” from Bernstein’s West Side Story. (Is there a vocal equivalent of method acting?)

But the most deeply affecting moments occurred not when DiDonato was “acting” vocally or impressing with her virtuosity. These were to be heard in the artful simplicity with which she delivered the unadorned melodies of Handel’s “Ombra mai fu”, Richard Rodgers’ “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel and a cappella, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (to open the second half). A ravishing, winning account of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” included multiple interactions with the players, crowned by a dance with Morlot after the singer coaxed him down from the podium.

Morlot framed the program with some curious instrumental choices … After which DiDonato obliged with a pair of encores: “Kansas City” from Oklahoma! and a transporting, hopeful “Over the Rainbow” that left the audience in rapture.