Berlioz didn't win the Prix de Rome with his cantata La mort de Cléopatre. The bold young composer – who, in 1829, was considered to "betray dangerous tendencies" – was condemned by French officialdom for what we now recognise as his typically imaginative and progressive approach to his subject-matter. This extraordinary scena, a highlight of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's season tracing the development of Romanticism, starred the American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. Her name alone ought to have attracted a packed and buzzing Queen's Hall in Edinburgh, but that element of excitement and anticipation – prominent among the qualities that used to mark out the once most glamorous of Scotland's orchestras – seemed to be missing.
Ms DeYoung, resplendent in scarlet and black, brought Cleopatra quite thrillingly to life, portraying the crowded thoughts and reminiscences that converge at the sensational climax of the charismatic queen's eventful life. In DeYoung's operatic reading, the solo line, theatre of the mind perhaps, emerged not as an internal monologue but as something colourful and fully dramatised, bathed in a vivid and sensuous light. She entered whole-heartedly into the emotions of the piece, conveying the queen's mental state as she approaches her suicide, and exploring, gloriously and with an unforced passion, every arresting twist and turn in the passages leading up to the moment of that fatal snake-bite.
Under Emmanuel Krivine, Berlioz's remarkably modern instrumental effects were characterfully presented by the orchestra, who were also assigned the brief but dramatic postscript role as tensions subside after the asp has done its deadly work. Cleopatra – at least in death – inspired a fascinating musical portrait; it possesses much more than the rarity value for which it is occasionally revived these days.
The shifting moods of the forest in Weber's overture to Der Freischütz were unfolded with an engaging affection by Krivine, especially the shuddering strings and plucked basses of Samiel's magic bullets and the dark instrumental shades of the Wolf's Glen. Schumann's Second Symphony completed the programme, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra players responding with alacrity to Krivine's energetic pacing. There was no danger of the tension dropping off in the two outer allegros. Between these almost self-propelling movements, his sensitively drawn adagio – benefiting from an extremely well-defined bass-line – and fleet-footed scherzo were integrated into a very satisfying performance.Reuse content