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Hei-Kyung Hong Adds Luster Met Opera

April 30, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) _ It didn’t seem possible that the Metropolitan Opera could improve on last season’s dazzling revival of Handel’s ``Giulio Cesare.″ Then the company unveiled its secret weapon: Hei-Kyung Hong.

The Korean-born soprano, though hardly a newcomer to the Met, gave a breakthrough performance Friday night as Cleopatra. The part of the manipulative, vain and ultimately passionate and loving Egyptian queen _ portrayed by Handel in a series of eight marvelous and difficult arias _ gave Hong a chance to demonstrate a vocal and emotional range she has rarely had an opportunity to display in her 16 seasons at the Met.

Her exquisite phrasing and meltingly lovely high notes were known quantities from past performances in such roles as Liu in Puccini’s ``Turandot″ and Mimi in ``La Boheme.″ But as an actress she had always seemed subdued. Here she showed a fine comic touch in the early scenes as the conniving Cleopatra, and depths of feeling as the queen falls desperately in love with Caesar.

Hong’s high notes may not be as pristine nor her ornamentations as precise as those of other sopranos who have sung the part here, but her Cleopatra is a major achievement and marks her emergence to stardom after years in the shadows.

Her Caesar for the night was mezzo Jennifer Larmore, who sang the part last season and has also partnered Hong on several recent recordings and in concerts. Larmore commands nothing but admiration for her commitment to the stalwart character and her astonishing execution of the role’s daunting coloratura.

Also back from last year were countertenor David Daniels and mezzo Stephanie Blythe (her formidable voice seems to have grown even more potent!) who again turned the Act 1 farewell between mother and son into a show-stopper.

Another countertenor, Brian Asawa, performed well as Cleopatra’s slimy brother, Ptolemy. John Nelson conducted the orchestra with such verve and nuance that it helped take one’s mind off John Copley’s overstuffed production.

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