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Something that certainly wasn’t a success in its day was Étienne Méhul’s Uthal, a one-act opera based on James Macpherson’s spuriously ‘ancient’ Ossian poems. To ramp up the gothic atmosphere (or add to the monotonous gloom, as the work’s detractors opined), Méhul removed violins from the orchestra and gave violas the lead, making the general musical palate more sonorous. To modern ears it is remarkably effective, and the overture depicting a storm, against which the distressed heroine calls her father’s name, certainly plunges the listener straight into the work.

Premiered in 1806, Méhul’s post-Gluckian structure and early Romantic scoring displays a vivid sense of drama, though some of his vocal writing isn’t so memorable. A particular highlight is the ‘Hymn to Sleep’, which was sung at the composer’s funeral in 1817. Karine Deshayes’ plangent mezzo perfectly captures the dilemma of the heroine, Malvina, caught between her husband Uthal and her father. Yann Beuron and Jean-Sébastien Bou take those two roles with style, and Christophe Rousset’s conducting emphasiaes the score’s darker colours without losing buoyancy.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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