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Étienne-Nicolas Méhul (born Givet, 22 June 1763; died Paris, 18 October 1817)

Jacques Benjamin Saint-Victor.

Poem Berrathon (1765) by “Ossian” (James Macpherson 1736-1800).


First performance: Paris (Opéra-Comique), 17 May 1806.
First UK performance: Edinburgh (Usher Hall), 17 August 1986 (concert).
First performance in Scotland: As above.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.


It is difficult nowadays to understand the massive influence on European culture caused by the emergence of the works of ‘Ossian’ in the late eighteenth century, when the verses survive only in the form of songs by Schubert and others, and in the episodes in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and the opera derived from it by Massenet. Ossian purports to be a 3rd century bard and hero, son of Fingal, King of Morven. In old age he recites the achievements of his various family members. Even after it was acknowledged that most of the tales were fakes concocted by Macpherson himself, they continued to be influential, and Sir Walter Scott could hardly have had his Europe-wide success if Ossian had not paved the way.

Méhul was regarded largely as a composer of comic operas and ceremonial music for the Napoleonic Empire, so Uthal was quite a departure for him. He set out to create a sound-world that brought to mind the Scottish Highlands, so there are no violins, and the string players play the lower instruments only, for example eighteen violas. The sound palette is undoubtedly interesting, conjuring up the gloomy highland atmosphere. Having done that, he adds a few harps. It is disappointing that Méhul’s actual powers of musical invention seem limited, and that much of the important action is carried on through spoken dialogue.


Main Characters
Malvina, daughter of Larmor, wife of Uthal (soprano)
Larmor, former chief of Dunthalmor (bass)
Uthal, the usurping chief (tenor)
Ullin, a bard (tenor)
Chief Bard (baritone)


Plot Summary
As the opera commences, Uthal has usurped the power of Larmor, and Malvina has left her husband to give her father her support. Larmor has sent one of his bards, Ullin, to Morven to get help from Fingal. Malvina still hopes to effect a reconciliation between father and husband, but her father is adamant, and Fingal’s troops now arrive to tackle the problem. Ullin explains to his master how helpful Fingal has been, and Larmor recounts how Uthal had deposed him on the grounds of his age as soon as he had let Malvina marry him. The bards and soldiers prepare for the next day’s battle by getting a good night’s sleep. Uthal is lurking in the woods nearby, when Malvina meets him. They argue because she is not willing to abandon her father though she still loves her husband. Their dispute wakes the camp and Larmor and Ullin appear. Malvina tries to act as peacemaker. She fails, and the opposing forces go off to battle. Uthal is defeated and captured. When Larmor decides he will be banished, Malvina announces that she will accompany her husband into exile. Uthal is so moved by this that he at last begs for forgiveness, and Larmor, relieved that he is no longer to lose his daughter, happily agrees. All rejoice at the arrival of peace.

The Cast

Chief Bard
 former chief of Dunthalmor
 daughter of Larmor, wife of Uthal
 a bard
 the usurping chief

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