Or they avoid the problem by not performing the work at all. The French operatic tradition, in particular, is full of important works with spoken dialogue that we rarely get to see on stage: some comic (e.g., by Auber or Adam), others serious (e.g., by Cherubini or, as here, Méhul).
Recording a little-known work, whether in the studio or during a performance, can give performers a chance to find out whether it retains enough vitality to speak to present-day listeners. I am currently reviewing two works with spoken dialogue and will soon post them here: Hérold’s Le pré aux clercs, a long-loved French opéra-comique whose tone alternates between giddy and grim; and, most unusually, an Italian work: De Giosa’s comic opera Don Checco. (The latter recording was actually made during a staged performance, apparently quite a successful one.)
Here we have the first fully satisfactory modern recording of the one-act opera Uthal (1806) by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763-1817). This work has long been praised for its unusual treatment of the orchestra, but performances have been few. An LP of a BBC studio performance from 1972 was once available on a pirate LP; it can now be retired.
The opera’s story comes from the writings of “Ossian,” a bard purported to have lived in southern Scotland in the third century. The Ossian epics were beloved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, even after it became known that they were, to a significant degree, inventions by a Scottish poet named James Macpherson, not (as Macpherson had at first claimed) translations from Gaelic originals. In Méhul’s opera we meet Malvina, her aged father Larmor, and her husband Uthal, who has deposed Larmor. There is much mention of Fingal, the people’s leader; many of us still recognize that brave warrior’s name through the other standard title for Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture: “Fingal’s Cave.” The libretto was written by J. B. de Saint-Victor, largely in classical alexandrines (rhymed verses consisting of six-plus-six syllables, as in the great tragedies of Corneille and Racine).
The many intriguing musical moments include an arioso for Malvina (track 9) in which orchestral fragments of the tramp-tramp of the warriors (who have just left the stage) can still be heard; the first chorus of bards, to which Malvina then overlays an entirely different melody (track 10); and the soliloquy aria for Uthal upon his long-awaited first appearance, halfway through the work (track 12). One senses here an opera composer who is never content to provide music in an automatic, conventional manner—and one from whom Berlioz, who likewise loved to layer disparate musical materials on top of one another, learned a lot.
Another intriguing moment: a solo cello, in high register, threads its quiet way through that aria of Uthal’s, playing long notes that form the melodic core of his vocal line, which has been somewhat more elaborated by the composer to allow for extra syllables in the text. (The vocal lines throughout the opera are on the plain and direct side, with nary a hint of coloratura.)
The singers here all have steady and attractive voices and sing their texts persuasively. They speak the dialogues well, though with a very wide dynamic range: I had to turn the volume up for some patches of whispering and then turn it down again when a character became agitated or insistent, or when the singing returned. But this complaint is also a compliment: the performers take the work seriously and make sure to convey the drama at every turn. And of course one can skip the dialogue tracks (clearly marked in the track list) and go from musical number to musical number.
My favorite singer here is Karine Deshayes, whom I have previously praised in Rossini arias and as the pagan queen in Félicien David’s 1859 opera Herculanum. Jean-Sébastien Bou sings beautifully as the father, though his lowest notes lack fullness, as was also true when he played another heroine’s father: in Lalo and Coquard’s La Jacquerie. The much-recorded tenor Yann Beuron—his voice still firm at 48—conveys well the resoluteness of the title character Uthal.
Christophe Rousset’s early-instrument group plays with spirit, accuracy, and much tonal variety. The orchestration is somewhat dark, because Méhul excluded the violins: instead, he called for a larger-than-usual viola section and divided it into two parts to provide the top lines of the string choir. (Brahms would similarly do without violins in his orchestral Serenade No. 2 and in the first movement of the German Requiem.) The absence of violins is frequently relieved by many other interesting instrumental effects. We often hear two very woodsy flutes, colorful stopped notes from two unvalved horns, and glinting arpeggios from two light-toned period harps. Passages of tremolo for the string sections are full of energy and impulse. The chorus (men only) is small but spirited and nearly always clear in pitch. The solo singers playing Ullin and four other bards—cousins, in a sense, to Oroveso and the druids in Bellini’s Norma—have only a little to sing, but they do it superbly.
The small book that comes with the CD contains excellent essays and background readings in French and English (including substantial passages by the composer, the librettist, and three nineteenth-century critics, one of them being Berlioz); the libretto is likewise given in both languages. The alexandrine lines are broken up into shorter ones on the page. This inadvertently disguises the verse meter and the rhyme schemes. But a reader, once alerted, should be easily able to restore mentally the original layout. Translations throughout are straightforward but occasionally too literal to be immediately clear.
The performance materials were prepared, and the recording funded, by the Center for French Romantic Music, located at the Palazzetto Bru Zane (Venice). The recording sessions took place in the Versailles-palace opera house, whose acoustics have long been admired. The Center’s website offers one track from the CD—Uthal’s cello-aria discussed above—plus a video interview with the conductor. An informative interview with the conductor can be seen on YouTube (with snippets from the recording). And YouTube offers track 18, in which the bards calmly of glorious battles from the past, while Malvina keeps interrupting them as the sounds of actual battle increase offstage, pitting her husband against her father, increase offstage. The published score can be downloaded at IMSLP.org.
I urge anyone who has a fondness for Cherubini’s Médée (or Medea, as it is known in its more usual Italianized version) to get to know this work by Méhul. You are in for an hour of pleasant surprises in the areas of melody, harmony, orchestral color, musico-dramatic cogency, and Napoleonic-era cultural mythology.
Ralph P. Locke
The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book).
image_description=Ediciones Singulares ES1026 [CD]
product_title=Étienne-Nicolas Méhul: Uthal
product_by=Karine Deshayes (Malvina), Yann Beuron (Uthal), Jean-Sébastien Bou (Larmor), Sébastien Droy (Ullin), Philippe-Nicolas Martin, Reinoud Van Mechelen, Aravazd Sargsyan, Jacques-Greg Belobo (bards). Les Talens Lyriques, Choeur de Chambre de Namur, conducted by Christophe Rousset.
product_id=Ediciones Singulares ES1026 [CD]