Released to coincide with the bicentenary of Méhul’s death, which falls this year, Christophe Rousset’s splendid recording of Uthal was made in tandem with performances at the Opéra Royal de Versailles in 2015. Premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1806, the opera derives from the influential Works of Ossian, James Macpherson’s supposed ‘translations’ of Gaelic epic poetry, the inauthenticity of which had not been definitively established at the time of composition. In France, Napoleon was one of many to express open admiration for ‘l’Homère du nord’, and Ossianic adaptations, both musical and in the visual arts, proliferated during the Empire.
Uthal, however, was a succès d’estime that divided opinion and eventually slipped from the repertory. Jacques Bins de Saint-Victor’s occasionally awkward libretto cramps epic narrative within the conventions of French classical tragedy (complete with dialogue in alexandrines), and focuses on the figure of Malvina, her loyalties divided between her father Larmor and her husband Uthal, who has usurped Larmor’s throne. To convey the sombre, war-torn atmosphere and penumbral northern setting, Méhul omits violins from his orchestra and gives prominence to brass and high woodwind. Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques mine the resulting sonorities for all their worth, and the effect is unquestionably startling, the dark colour suggestive of flashes of metal seen through fog. The 19th-century response, however, was far from positive. Cherubini found the opera ‘pretentious’. Berlioz, in a major lapse of judgement, complained of ‘monotony’.
Rousset also lays due emphasis on the work’s pivotal nature as well as its originality. Vocal lines that look back to Gluck alternate with brass-writing that anticipates Weber. The lurching figurations that usher Uthal on to the stage sound like Berlioz, who, whatever his qualms, also learnt much from the exquisite instrumentation of the bardic ‘Hymne au sommeil’, the most popular section in Méhul’s lifetime.
Modern listeners are more likely to be fazed by Méhul’s extensive use of dialogue for the confrontations between Uthal and Larmor, and the recognition scene for Malvina and Uthal on his arrival, disguised, in Larmor’s territory. Speech and song, however, are seamlessly integrated here, maintaining both dramatic tension and consistency of characterisation throughout. Yann Beuron’s Uthal and Jean Sébastien Bou’s Larmor square off implacably in their slanging matches, and Beuron’s vulnerability in his scenes with his wife contrasts sharply with the gathering ferocity with which Bou denigrates him. Karine Deshayes vividly registers Malvina’s oscillating emotions and the momentousness of the choice she must make between husband and father. The Bards sound beguiling in their Hymn, though it’s the Chief Bard’s ‘Près de Balva, sur le nuage’, handsomely sung by Philippe-Nicolas Martin, that emerges as the work’s most beautiful passage. It’s hard to imagine a better bicentenary tribute: do listen to it.