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“On 17 May 1806, the Opéra-Comique gave the first performance of a curious opera by Méhul, Uthal, uniquely Romantic in flavour, on a libretto inspired by Ossian.” Lionel de La Laurencie was not wrong when, as late as 1925, he commented on the most original operas of the Napoleonic era, demolishing the received idea that the music of that period was filled with superficial pomp and circumstance. Following the success of Les Bardes by Lesueur in 1804, on the stage of the Académie Impériale de Musique, the Opéra-Comique commissioned Méhul to write a short, gripping work inspired by Macpherson’s Ossianic reveries, which France was in the process of discovering. The composer had the inspired—albeit risky—idea of musically translating the mists of an imagined Scotland by the “greyish” tones of an orchestra with no violins. The Gothic feel of the wind instruments, and the melancholy poetry of a harp sporadically emerging above the whole ensemble, form a contrast with the warlike choruses and belligerent tones of Larmor or Uthal. Méhul was breaking new ground, right from the overture, in which the character of Malvina desperately cries out for her father from the wings. The chorus itself consists only of men’s voices in three parts. The Hymne au soleil, a highly Romantic bardic hymn, was to become one of the composer’s best-known numbers, and was sung over his grave by Conservatory students at his funeral in 1817.


publication date : 25/09/23

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