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Les Talens Lyriques/Rousset
Ediciones Singulares ES1026
Étienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763–1817) is remembered today for the stirring Chant du Départ, the most popular French revolutionary anthem after the Marseillaise, but his operas and symphonies, acclaimed in their day, are now seldom performed.It’s a pity, because Uthal (1806) is an intriguing work, full of the devices the early Romantics loved: forests in the middle of the night, bards, warriors, the roaring sea, and the poetry of Ossian: a blind Gaelic poet from the third century – invented by an 18th-century Scotsman. Ossian’s day has long since passed, leaving in its wake Ingres’ paintings, Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, and Méhul’s opera.
The story is a good excuse for Ossianic atmosphere. Malvina (Karine Deshayes) tries to bring peace to her warring husband Uthal (Yann Beuron) and father Larmor (Jean-Sébastien Bou). All three leads are in fine voice, but the finest music is reserved for the bards: the enchanting Hymne au Sommeil and the chant Près de Balva. The harp features prominently in both.
Méhul’s most famous stroke was to score the opera without violins, restricting himself to violas and basses in order to give the work an austere feel. Berlioz thought the result was “melancholy, more wearisome than poetic”, while Grétry quipped, “I would rather have given a louis d’or to hear an E-string!” It’s more than a stylistic oddity, though; it shows a composer experimenting with his palette and sensitive to the text.