Méhul’s “Uthal” a Fascinating Dramatic Opera

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MÉHUL: Uthal / Karine Deshayes, mezzo-soprano (Malvina); Yann Beuron, tenor (Uthal); Jean-Sébastien Bou, baritone (Larmor); Sébastian Droy, tenor (Ullin); Philippe-Nicolas Martin, baritone (Le Chef des Bardes/Troisieme Barde); Reinoud van Mechelen, countertenor (Le Premier Barde); Artavazd Sargsyan, tenor (Le Deuxième Barde); Jacques-Greg Belobo, bass (Le Quatrièm Barde); Les Talens Lyriques; Chœur de Chambre de Namur; Christophe Rousset, conductor / Ediciones Singulaires ES1026

It’s really a shame that the operas of Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, greatly admired by Beethoven and Berlioz (and partly an influence on Fidelio), are virtually unknown today. Every opera I’ve heard by him—Le Chant du Départ, Joseph en Égypte and Stratonice—has been not only interesting, but also highly unusual in its musical character and quality, and Uthal, despite a somewhat convoluted plot, is no exception. Based on a legend of the Irish poet Ossian, it concerns Larmor, the old chief of Dunthalmon, who now lives in the woods because his son-in-law Uthal has usurped his authority, deeming him no longer able to fight in battle. Larmor’s daughter Malvina tries to calm his anger and persuade him to reconcile with the husband he gave her. But Larmor, though touched, rejects her arguments. He sends his faithful bard Ullin to Fingal’s palace to inform the latter of the injustice done to him.

Fingal decides not to fight such a weak enemy himself, but sends the men of Morven to do it for him. The warriors land on the shore and Larmor tells them to “Steep yourselves in the traitors’ blood.” Malvina stays by herself, despairing that her father and Uthal might fight each other in mortal combat. At the same moment, Uthal enters the forest and bemoans his faithless wife whom he still loves dearly. Malvina, not recognizing Uthal, approaches him to ask his assistance to avoid a fatal outcome. Curious, Uthal at first is careful not to be recognized and is moved by Malvina’s confession, but soon his anonymity becomes impossible, and when Larmor shows up with the men of Morven, come to declare war on him, Uthal refuses to submit and chooses an unequal combat. At the end of the battle, while the Bards try to comfort Malvina by singing her an ancient ballad, Uthal is taken prisoner. Larmor denies him the death he wishes and condemns him to the shame of exile, but when Malvina declares that she will leave the palace to follow him her compassion so moves Uthal that he agrees to kneel before Larmor. The old chief, touched, grants his pardon.

From the very opening of the overture, one is immediately plunged into an ominous and unique sound world. Méhul completely dispensed with violins in his scoring in order to give the music a dark character, and it works. Only edgy-sounding violas, cellos and basses are heard amid a largely wind and horn-based orchestra, and nearly all the scoring is low and ominous. The music works up to a fever pitch in this overture, and suddenly Malvina’s voice is heard riding the agitated orchestra, much like the opening scene of Gluck’s great Iphigénie en Tauride. Being an opéra-comique, there is spoken dialogue, but either Méhul’s librettist kept it to a minimum or the performers here did so, because it is not overlong or obtrusive on the thoroughly exceptional music. This is a dark, powerful work that plunges headlong in its progression. Solos and duets are generally brief and wedded into the preceding and ensuing music. Occasionally, as in Malvina’s sung dramatic strophe “Quoi! Ce combat affreux!”, the music takes on a declamatory quality; in others, like the following quartet “O de Selma” (sung by the three Bards and Malvina), Méhul employs a much more lyrical vein for the three men but overlays a much more tense and dramatic line for the mezzo-soprano. In these ways Méhul keeps the music moving, and developing, and maintains your interest. Moreover, by keeping the whole of the opera to one hour, he does not drag out what could have been a tempest in a teapot to oversized proportions.

uthal-castPre-echoes of Beethoven abound in this music, as do post-echoes of Gluck. Méhul was a well-grounded and highly imaginative composer, and there is not a wasted moment or gesture in Uthal. On the contrary, this is music of a very high order, and it is to the credit of the cast—none of which I’ve ever heard of before—that they not only sing with beautiful tones and fine styles but give themselves over to the drama, lifting it out of its artificiality and making it valid and interesting. The one real aria in the opera, Uthal’s “Quoi! je la cherché en vain!”, is set in G-flat minor to an uneasy 4/4 with ominous syncopated accompaniment by the basses. After one of the longer spoken dialogues between Uthal and Malvina, their duet is a driving, urgent piece in B-flat minor with a distinctly Beethovinian sound about it.

I simply cannot say enough good things about the performers. One and all, from the top female voices down to the chorus, orchestra and conductor, they give 110% and make as strong a case for this music as could possibly be imagined.

I reviewed this record via downloads, and thus only received the booklet as an Adobe PDF file, but if you buy the hard copy you’ll get a deluxe package , slightly taller than a DVD case, with an exquisite hard binding and fine paper pages with the liner notes and complete libretto. Very highly recommended!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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