- Drame lyrique in 1 act
- Composer: Étienne-Nicolas Méhul
- Libretto: Jacques Bins de Saint-Victor, after Ossian
- First performed : Opéra-Comique (salle Feydeau), Paris, 17 May 1806
SETTING: Ancient Scotland
CHARACTERS: UTHAL (haute-contre); MALVINA (soprano), his wife; LARMOR (baritone), her father, laird of Dunthalmon; ULLIN (tenor), bard attached to Larmor; CHIEF BARD (bass)
ORIGINAL CAST: Jean-Baptiste-Sauveur Gavaudan as Uthal; Julie-Angélique Scio as Malvina; Jean-Pierre Solié as Larmor; Pierre Gaveaux as Ullin; Baptiste Cadet as the Chief Bard.
Few today remember the poems of Ossian; still fewer read them – but the early Romantics ranked the blind third-century Scottish warrior-bard with Homer no less. One James Macpherson published the poems in the 1760s, claiming they were translations of ancient Scottish Gaelic poetry. Here, his contemporaries felt, was something antique, rugged, and noble. The poems soon appeared in almost every European language. Goethe and Voltaire admired them; Thomas Jefferson called “this rude bard of the North … the greatest poet that has ever existed”.
The problem, of course, is that Ossian didn’t exist. He was one of the cleverest fakes in literary history. Many today believe (as Dr. Johnson suspected) that the poems were an imposture; Macpherson raided Irish sources and mixed Scottish poems into his own pieces. The Ossian bubble has long since burst, leaving in its wake a Romantic craze for Scotland, Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave”, and Méhul’s opera.
Uthal was calculated to please Napoleon, a great admirer of Ossian; he carried a volume of the poems in his pocket at all times – even into battle –and commissioned paintings inspired by the bard. He took Ossian as his poet, the poet Lemercier remarked, since Homer and Virgil were already taken by Alexander and Augustus. Lesueur’s opera Les Bardes had appeared in 1804; dedicated to Bonaparte, it contains a remarkable dream scene where the poet sees the heroes of his race. The delighted Napoleon awarded the musician the Légion d’honneur and a snuffbox from ‘L’Empereur des Français à l’auteur des Bardes’.
Méhul’s opera is a Scotch broth of storm-tossed forests, wronged lairds, hardy lasses, bards, and warriors; an exercise in mood and atmosphere rather than a stirring drama.
The score is notorious for the total absence of violins. Méhul used only violas and basses out of all the string family to achieve a mysterious, melancholy tone. Quatremère-de-Quincey compared the effect to “a sort of veil or greyish shade spread over the entire composition”. Castil-Blaze thought the idea had merit, but was overdone: Méhul should have foreseen that an orchestra without violins could not sustain an audience’s interest throughout a whole opera; the uniformity of colour inspired melancholy and then boredom. At the end of the dress rehearsal, Méhul asked Grétry his opinion; “I would gladly give a louis d’or to hear an E-string!” the old man replied. Decades later, Berlioz called this chiaroscuro timbre monotonous, more tiresome than poetic. The opera is also notable for an early use of the harp.
The action takes place in a wild and rugged landscape: a forest by night, separated from the sea by a chain of rocks. Uthal has deposed his father-in-law Larmor, laird of Dunthalmon. Larmor rallies his men to take back the throne. Uthal comes looking for his wife Malvina; Larmor’s men capture him, but release him so they can meet in battle. Uthal is defeated. Malvina decides to remain with her husband; Larmor forgives his enemy, and makes peace.
The overture is a tone poem depicting Malvina’s vision, her father’s flight through the storm, and her cry of alarm. Father and daughter are reunited in the forest in an effective cavatina and duet (No. 1: ‘Ombres de mes aïeux’). The following scene is a Romantic tableau. The bards enter to a march rhythm, accompanied by clarinets, horns, bassoons and harps offstage (No. 2: ‘Le grand Fingal’); they sing a brief but bellicose allegro chorus (No. 3: ‘Nous bravons la tempête’); and another bloodthirsty chorus (No. 4: ‘Vers le palais de tes nobles ancêtres’). Castil-Blaze found in them the vigour and roughness the accents of a savage people demanded. The scene culminates in the Hymne du Soleil (‘Ô de Selma’), a beautiful andante quartet accompanied by two harps, two flutes, and two horns. Castil-Blaze thought the melodious ensemble was pleasantly varied by the harmony and strangeness of a series of perfect chords skillfully adjusted. This is one of the two best pieces in the little opera, and it remained a popular concert piece after Uthal left the stage. Castil-Blaze thought the hymn was delightful, heard as a serenade in the still of the night.
Uthal enters, searching for Malvina. His recitative (No. 5) opens with a sombre descending phrase on the basses and urgent stabbing phrases. Exhausted and tormented, he rests. His tragic, dark-hued andante romance ‘Tel que l’en voit sur nos montagnes’ is finely characterised, but contemporary critics thought a traitor ought not to sing lovely romances. Castil-Blaze thought the melody was too little varied; the musician sacrificed the singing to the orchestra.
Malvina enters, and asks the warrior for aid; day breaks gradually, and she recognizes her husband. The duet (No. 6: ‘Uthal! ô ciel! c’est Uthal!’) is an intense piece; Uthal tries to take his wife back with him by force, but is prevented by the arrival of Larmor and the bards; the scene erupts in an impressive stretta. The morceau d’ensemble (No. 7: ‘Brave vengeurs d’une juste querelle’) contains an imposing oath, but the war song is disappointingly tame.
The scene contains the Chant des Bardes (‘Près de Balva’), which begins as a lovely bass solo. This is the other highlight of the opera; Castil-Blaze thought it had the Ossianic colour: it recalls the traditions – or at least our idea of them – of the songs of ancient Caledonia.
Larmor’s men defeat Uthal in battle, and sing a victory chorus (No. 8: ‘Réjouis-toi, Morven’). The score labels the final number (No. 9: ‘Doux moments’) a chorus, but it’s really a quartet; this allegro piece is pleasantly calming after the storm and rages of the opera.
The work was a succès d’estime, critically praised but lasting only 15 performances. Le Mémorial dramatique found in it noble and pure songs, great effects of harmony, everything to produce the charm and illusion that suit Ossian’s poems. The Journal de Paris thought the work perhaps too serious for the Opéra-Comique theatre, but praised the arias and ensemble pieces (except for a few romances), all of an elevated style and the most skillful craftsmanship. Nevertheless, Castil-Blaze thought, the uniformity of colour, and the slim interest of the plot, prevented Méhul’s new work from achieving lasting success, even though it was produced in a time when bards and Caledonian subjects were fashionable.
The work was resurrected in 1973 by the BBC, and in 2015 by Bru Zane as part of their Opéra français series.
LISTEN TO: Karine Deshayes (Malvina), Yann Beuron (Uthal), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Larmor), Sébastien Droy (Ullin), and Philippe-Nicolas Martin (le Chef des Bardes), with Les Talens Lyriques and Chœur de Chambre de Namur conducted by Philippe Rousset. Versailles, 2015. Palazzetto Bru Zane, 2016.
- Hector Berlioz, “Les opéras de Méhul (deuxième article)”, Le Nouvelliste, 19 September 1851
- Castil-Blaze, “Méhul”, Revue de Paris, 1834 (two parts)
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- Arthur Pougin, “Méhul – sa vie, son génie, son caractère – XII”, Le Ménestrel, 19 October 1884
- M. Quatremère-de-Quincey, Secrétaire-perpétuel de l’Académie, Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Méhul, read at the Séance publique de l’Académie royale des beaux-arts, 2 October 1819
- “Théâtre national de l’Opéra-Comique : Seconde représentation d’Uthal”, Journal de l’Empire, 21 May 1806
- “Ossian’s Dream”, https://www.napoleon.org/en/history-of-the-two-empires/paintings/ossians-dream-le-songe-dossian/
- “Ossian”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ossian#Authenticity_debate