Opera Scotland

Uthal 1986Edinburgh International Festival

Read more about the opera Uthal

It was disappointing that  such an interesting opera based on an important Scottish literary source should be so little known, and only now receiving its Scottish premiere. While Méhul's work is no masterpiece, the main reason must be the total neglect into which the Ossian works of Macpherson have fallen, especially in his native land. Surely he is long overdue for programming and assessment.

This concert programme was intended to make amends for that neglect, with the SNO's principal conductor, the ever-adventurous Neeme Järvi, being the ideal advocate for a programme based almost entirely on the works of 'Ossian'.

An enterprising element of this event is that the Festival management, presumably in an attempt to bring in an audience of curious novelty-seekers, billed it as a 'popular concert' and priced all seats at a flat rate £5.00. This at least avoided the rows of empty seats that might otherwise have resulted.

If Uthal formed the entire musical content after the interval, the first part of the programme contained four items, two very well known and two the opposite. The idea was to show the influence throughout Europe of this Scottish cultural icon in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

The opening rarity was Danish - Neil's Gade's Echoes of Ossian, essentially a concert overture of some accomplishment. This was followed by the most universally loved of such pieces, Mendelssohn's overture 'The Hebrides' - on this occasion the work's Fingal's Cave aspect was more appropriate, of course, and its genius certainly sparkled in this context.

The next piece was also well known, but quite what it was doing in the context of such a programme wasn't clear. The Bride of Lammermoor was a favourite novel throughout Europe in the early 19th century, but was by Sir Walter Scott, not Ossian. Perhaps the initial thoughts were to include more Scott-ish material. No matter, Lucia's Mad Scene was well presented, but it was hard to escape the idea that some genuinely Ossianic music was still being ignored. In any event Pamela Myers gave a thoroughly accomplished account of the sequence.

The most famous operatic reference to Ossian is probably the wonderful tenor aria from Massenet's Werther, but no, that wasn't here either. The last item before the interval was another, much earlier,  French interpretation of Ossian's Dream - from Les Bardes, ou Ossian, the greatest operatic success from 1804 of Jean-François Le Sueur. A favourite of Napoleon and later teacher of Berlioz, there was enough of interest here to encourage more to be unearthed.

And so to Uthal itself. When mentioned in the reference books, the authors concentrate on one feature of Méhul's interesting orchestration. In a generally successful attempt to stimulate an unusual atmosphere, the violins are left at home, and the string tone throughout is dark and edgy, with rows of violas and cellos  dominating the texture. Perhaps Méhul lacks the melodic inspiration to make the most of the possibilities - the kind of quirkiness that Berlioz might have brought to it.  Of the soloists, a newcomer, Anthony Michaels-Moore, inevitably stood out with a superb voice and the innate ability to dominate the stage even in concert. Pamela Myers as the heroine produced some nice highlights. A well-known veteran Scottish actor, James Cairncross, was employed to provide a linking narrative. This worked more effectively than such devices usually do.


The 1986 Festival

The Edinburgh Festival's Director, Frank Dunlop, was definitely a man of the theatre, and many Festivals had enjoyed the fruits of his labour since the sixties. He had not previously directed an opera, but the highlight in 1986 was clearly his staging of Weber's Oberon, the pantomime elements of which suited him to a tee. The Maly Theatre from Leningrad were the first Russian opera company to visit the Festival, bringing three productions, at a time when it was quite unthinkable that the Kirov and Bolshoi would be almost frequent visitors within a few years. Two fitted the Festival's Tchaikovsky theme. The Toronto Symphony brought a Stravinsky double-bill, simply staged in the Usher Hall, where The Soldier's Taleand Oedipus Rex came over well. A second theme of the Festival was the Scottish Enlightenment and the works of Walter Scott and James Macpherson ('Ossian'), for which the SNO and conductor Neeme Järvi assembled a fascinating evening that ended with a concert performance of Mehul's Ossian opera Uthal

Non-operatic events included notable performances by Simon Rattle and the CBSO of Dream of Gerontius and Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.

Performance Cast

Malvina daughter of Larmor, wife of Uthal

Pamela Myers

Uthal the usurping chief

Jeffrey Talbot

Ullin a bard

Mark Curtis

Chief Bard

Anthony Michaels-Moore

Larmor former chief of Dunthalmor

Roderick Earle

Performance DatesUthal 1986

Map List

Usher Hall | Edinburgh

17 Aug, 20.00

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