DiDonato sublime, profound in homecoming concert

When Joyce DiDonato comes to town it’s not just an event worth attending. It’s a cause for celebration. The world-famous mezzo-soprano performed with Kansas City Symphony on Friday night at Helzberg Hall, living up to her stellar reputation as one of the world’s premier vocalists.

In addition to DiDonato’s recent Grammy Award for best classical vocal solo for her disc “Diva, Divo,” the Prairie Village native is a regular cover girl for major music magazines such as Opera News and Gramophone.

The star displayed her civic pride Friday by commenting on the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. “I’ve been hearing about this majestic temple of music from afar,” DiDonato said. “This has exceeded every expectation I had.”

The Symphony’s executive director, Frank Byrne, announced that the weekend’s concerts will be filmed for a PBS broadcast on July 20 and music director Michael Stern introduced the orchestra’s new concertmaster, Noah Geller.

DiDonato presented music that was sublime and profound. While she is best known for her operatic roles in Gioachino Rossini’s “La Cenerentola (Cinderella)” and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville),” the singer turned to “Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc),” a lesser-known cantata by the composer.

Even during the orchestral opening, DiDonato was in character, contemplative and emotive with her facial expressions. The cantata is like an opera scene in its structure, opening with a long recitative-like section followed by more melodic aria.

Throughout the work, the mezzo exhibited great tonal beauty, astonishing lyricism and expression. Her lower register was solid and resonant, while the upper range was vibrant and rich. The ornamental passages with their rapid runs were especially striking.

DiDonato championed “The Deepest Desire,” a song cycle by American composer Jake Heggie, performing it on her first recital disc from 2005. The original version for voice, piano and flute was later orchestrated. The composition sets the poetry of Sister Helen Prejean, famed author of the book “Dead Man Walking” (which, incidentally, Heggie set as an opera.)

The work is tonal, with strategically placed dissonances that lend expression and drama to the work. The opening featured challenging flute parts expertly handled by Michael Gordon and Shannon Finney.

The central movement, “I Catch on Fire,” featured the wittiest moment of the evening, when the author, Sister Prejean, remembers her habit catching on fire while teaching a fourth-grade religion class. By contrast, the next song —“The Deepest Desire”— was the most profound, a moving evocation of the development of the author’s spirituality from contemplation to a vocation of seeking social justice.

La Forza del Destino Der Rosenkavalier

After what appeared like the final bows of the evening, Stern brought DiDonato back to the stage. “It’s very cheeky of me,” she quipped. “I pulled the maestro aside and said I have one more gown.”

To the audience’s delight, she sang a wistful and dreamy rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”