Etienne-Nicolas Méhuls mehr oder weniger einziger Ruhm in unserer Zeit ruht fast ausschließlich auf seinem Joseph, dem einzigen unter seinen 35 dramatischen Werken, dessen Aufführungen sich seit seiner Premiere 1807 bis heute finden, und vielleicht noch auf der prachtvollen Ouvertüre zu La Chasse du jeune Henri (von vielen berühmten Dirigenten aufgenommen).
Das Ausmaß einer solchen Vernachlässigung ist jedoch nichts Neues, wie sie schon Berlioz 1852 beklagte. 1763 in Givet in den Ardennen geboren und in Paris zur Vervollständigung seiner Studien ausgebildet, hatte Méhul das große Glück, Gluck vorgestellt zu werden. Der erkannte sein Talent und riet ihm, sich der Oper zuzuwenden. 1797 erzielte Méhul einen brillanten Erfolg an der Opéra-Comique mit Euphrosine. Während er zur selben Zeit das Seine zu den prunkvollen Revolutions-Feierlichkeiten beitrug (dessen typischer Stil sich in den Morceau d´ensemble no. 4 in Uthal findet: „Abreuvez-vous du sang des traîtres“), komponierte er mit wechselndem Erfolg weiter für die Comique. Zudem war er auch eines der Gründungsmitglieder des Conservatoire de Paris. Seine Karriere, die während der Zeit Napoleons unbeschadet weiter gelaufen war, erreichte ihren Höhepunkt 1805 mit Joseph, bis die Errungenschaften Spontinis und eine fortschreitende Tuberkulose Méhuls Energien erschöpft hatten. Sein Tod 1817 fiel mit der ersten Vorstellung von Rossinis Italiana in Algeri zusammen – der Beginn einer Revolution du gout, die sich tödlich auf eben die Ästhetik auswirkte, die Méhul so sehr verfochten hatte.
Und heute? Ein paar Wiederbelebungen ohne große Wirkung (darunter der Horatius aus den Radio-Sechzigern, verschiedene Josephs und Iratos), die Einspielungen seiner Klaviersonaten, seiner vier Sinfonien und einiger Opern (darunter L´irato, Stratonice und kürzlich Adrien, s. jpc oder Amazon) erlauben es uns glücklicherweise, die Einschätzung seines Genies zu erweitern. Aus Paris gibt es nun vom 30. Mai 2015 – nach einem verdienstvollen ersten Anlauf der BBC 1972 (Sarti, Wakefield/ Robinson auf UORC-LP) – Méhuls Opéra comique in einem Akt, Uthal, von 1806, konzertant unter Christophe Rousset mit einer illustren Besetzung durch Karine Deshayes, Yann Beurron (in der Titelrolle), Jean-Sébastien Bou, Sébastien Droy, den Talens Lyriques und dem Kammerchor aus Namur – dies alles wieder einmal im Zuge der Bemühungen des hier vielfach gelobten und erwähnten Palazetto Bru Zane in der prachtvollen Opéra Royale de Versailles, am Radio bei Radio France und natürlich nun auf einer CD bei Ediciones Singulares im unpraktischen, aber eleganten Buchformat mit vielen Aufsätzen in Französisch und Englisch sowie dem zweisprachigen Libretto – Qualität wie meist.. Gesungen wird, wie oft bei Rousset und dem Palazetto, ebenfalls hervorragend: Karine Deshayes, Yves Beurron, Jean-Sebastien Bou, Sebastien Droy und andere machen dem französischen Gesang der mittleren Größe Ehre; dazu kommt Christophe Rousset mit seinen Mannen ganz wunderbar. Alles in allem eine Ossian-Story zum Füße Wippen.
Kommentare zur Oper Uthal sind knapp, weil kaum jemand sie bislang gehört hat. 1925 schrieb der Musikwissenschaftler Lionel de la Laurencie: „Am 17. Mai 1806 gab es an der Opéra-Comique eine merkwürdige Oper, Méhuls Uthal, auf ein von Ossian inspiriertes Libretto, die besonders romantisch wegen ihrer Orchesterfarben wirkte. Die Geigen wurden durch Violas ersetzt.“ Und er hatte recht, darauf hinzuweisen, dass sich einige Opern der Napoleonischen Periode durch besondere Originalität auszeichnen und nicht wie oft angenommen nur durch überflüssigen Pomp. Als Reaktion auf den Erfolg von Les Bardes, eine Oper von Lesueur 1804 an der Académie Impériale de Musique, beauftragte die Opéra-Comique Méhul, ein kurzes, beeindruckendes Werk zu schreiben, das von den Ossianischen Gesängen des James Macpherson inspiriert sein sollte (s. Wikipedia), die kurz zuvor ihren Weg nach Frankreich gefunden hatten (und die Goethe bereits 1774 zu seinem Werther angeregten).
Der Komponist hatte die brillante – und wagemutige – Idee, die Nebel durchzogene Landschaft Schottlands (so, wie er sie sich vorstellte) von einem Orchester ohne Violinen evozieren zu lassen. Die „Gotische“ Farbe der Holzinstrumente und die poetische Melancholie einer Harfe, die ab und zu aus dem Ensemble herauszuhören ist, kontrastieren auffällig mit den martialischen Chören und den kriegslustigen Charakteren Larmors und Uthals. Bereits in der Ouvertüre überrascht Méhul mit dem Kunstgriff, Malvina in der Kulisse verzweifelt nach ihrem Vater rufen zu lassen. Der Chor selbst besteht aus dreigeteilten Männerstimmen. Die Hymne au soleil ist ein ausgesprochen romantisches Stück und wird von den Barden gesungen – einer der besten Einfälle unter Méhuls Kompositionen . Die Studenten des Pariser Conservatoires (unter dessen Gründern Méhul selbst gewesen war), sangen dieses Hymne an die Sonne bei seinem Begräbnis 1817.
Im Folgenden bringen wir zur Ergänzung einen Text des eminenten französischen Musikwissenschaftlers und Musikkritikers Gérard Condé zum Uthal von Méhul (in der englischen Übersetzung des Palazetto Bru Zane).
(…) A few revivals of no great consequence, the recordings of his piano sonatas, his four symphonies and some operas (including L’irato, Stratonice and most recently Adrien) have happily permitted the asses- sment of his genius to be expanded. However, in the minds of the limited number of those aware of its existence, Uthal still only conjures up the harsh exclamation offered up by Grétry at the end of its first performance on May 17, 1806: “I’d give a louis to hear an E-string!”. This ironic comment arose from Méhul’s decision to request from the violinists that they swap their instruments for violas, the aim being to produce from the orchestra a veiled and melancholic sound at one with the ambience of the Ossianic world. This is especially notable in the overture where the woodwind, assuming the role ordinarily occupied by the violins, break out with an intense cutting edge above the restlessly billowing waves of the lower strings, as they would again do in the Morceau d’ensemble (“Nous le jurons, ce jour qui nous éclaire”). This is noticeable also in the Romance d’Uthal (n. 5, “Pour prix d’un bien si pleine de charme”) and in the Chant des bardes (“Près de Balva”), where the viola parts, limited to the lower part of their medium register, mask the perpetual motion of the harp. In his Soirées de l’orchestre, and based solely on what he had heard about the removal of the violins, Berlioz boldly declared that “it caused a tedium more tiring than poetic for the continuity of this chiaroscuro colouring”. An “intolerable monotony” is how he describes it in his Grand traité d’orchestration. The conciseness of Uthal, however, hardly allows fatigue much time to set in…
Grétry’s witticism was a neat one, but didn’t go any further than that, in comparison with the arguments put forward by Cherubini (in an article noted by Arthur Pougin), in order to justify the little sympathy with which Uthal inspired in him: For some considerable time, those who were jealous of the reputation and the successes obtained by Méhul reproached him for not having gone deeply enough into his compositional studies. Méhul had the weakness of being sensitive to these rebukes and, dating from around the time when he had composed Joanna , he felt it necessary to prove that he had carried out such studies by rashly introducing into his compositions forms which were both too scholastic and pedantic for the opera, and with which he used to overburden the ensuing pieces. He has not ceased to follow this pretentious and deleterious method from that time on, in all the operas which he has composed, whether they be serious or comic. Cherubini had in mind that tendency – a little too prominent – of imitative writing, such as can be noticed in Malvina’s arioso, “Pour soulager tes maux”. In so doing, Méhul was drawing inspiration from stylistic religious archaism in order to underline the character’s piety.
Debated or forgotten, Uthal has nevertheless not been without its supporters. In 1904, the Dessau opera house put a performance on of it which, according to Le Monde artiste, enjoyed a great success. In 1908, the supplement to the Revue musicale contained no less than 150 pages of a piano reduction of the work. One can, however, go back to 1856 when Castil-Blaze, in his Histoire de l’opéra had laid stress on one of the most memorable sections: The Hymne au sommeil, in which sing four bards, accompanied only by two harps, two flutes and two horns, is quite beautiful; its melodious ensemble is pleasantly varied by the harmonic layout and the oddness of a succession of common chords skilfully connected to each other. Some time following Méhul’s death, as can be read in Les musiciens célèbres of François Desplantes, students of singing at the Conservatoire gathered around his tomb in the Père Lachaise cemetery, in order to give a rendition of this piece; the one section from the whole work which was resistant for the longest time to this neglect. The striking combination of horns, flutes and harp underpinning the fluid vocal polyphony with understated chromaticisms, completely avoids academic models, whilst the complaints of Malvina, which are placed on top in the second verse, do not obstruct the natural impression which makes this piece so charming.
Despite its evident musical beauties, Uthal failed being kept in the repertory beyond its first 15 performances. Arthur Pougin suspected Méhul’s “great fault of not sufficiently troubling himself with the inherent or dramatic potential of the poems offered up to him, and which he accepted too easily.” The theme draws upon the Guerre d’Inistona [The War of Inis-thona], in which Ossian celebrates the authority of Oscar, bringing back onto the throne the old Anio, who had been chased from it by his kinsman Cormalo. Jacques Bins de Saint-Victor has embellished his libretto with a few episodes taken from other compositions by James Macpherson (1736-1796). The Gaelic poems, attributed by the latter to the legendary third-century bard Ossian, the publication of which poems in 1760/63 had filled an entire generation with enthusiasm, became a favourite reading-matter for Napoléon Bonaparte. Saint-Victor dedicated his poem to Girodet, responsible for a Mort de Malvina, and who, along with Ingres and Gérard, had been one of the painters most inspired by the Ossianic world.
However, people weren’t taken in by the fraud of the author who had constructed a Scottish mythology with nearly the entire piece. Additionally, it was with a charming sense of mischief that the chronicler of Le Journal de l’Empire of May 21, 1806 pointed out that the plot is a rearrangement of Plutarch’s Lives of Agis and Cleomenes, where Cleombrotus (Uthal), the husband of Chelonis (Malvina), ascends to the throne of his father-in-law Leonidas (Larmor). “Perhaps the author of Uthal wanted to take advantage of a kind of fleeting fashion which the Scottish bards had been enjoying in Paris: he may have thought Ossian that would be more à la mode than Plutarch, and I think that he wasn’t far wrong. The theme would have been denuded of all kinds of glamour and standing if M. de Saint-Victor had undertaken to deal with it according Grecian practices. There was a time when the Lacedaemonians would have served to provide a better tone than the Bards […] I rather feel that the lyres of the musicians of Lacedaemonians would have proved more harmonious than the so-called golden harps of these bygone Scottish priests, who used to live at a time and in a country when not much in the way of gold would have been seen, and where no one knew any music at all.” The Gazette de France of May 19, 1806 also appeared to be severe with Saint-Victor’s libretto In its design it offers nothing that is new, nor that is truly interesting. The individual scenes are insufficiently connected. The author also fails to comprehend the route that he is going to take. It is known that the Ossianic heroes – like their Homeric counterparts – often went about on foot, neither with an entourage nor with ostentation. The beauties from Morven and Erin do even better; they occasionally took up lances in battle, defying death alongside their loved ones. Yet in our theatre, all this rushing about and the nocturnal monologues do not harbour the same illusion; to us, it seems to be very peculiar that the fierce Uthal should stand all alone in the pursuit of his woman, and that he challenges an entire enemy army all by himself. The substance of the theme bears some resemblance with that of King Lear: Malvina’s magnanimous manner, stating that she is the most unfortunate one, has already been employed a thousand times over; incidentally, however, the characters are fairly well defined, the local colour is maintained successfully. Often the verses are felicitous imitations of the Scottish bard; the silence of the evening, the murmuring of the mountain streams, the storm winds, the cloud palaces, the ghosts of heroes constantly returning there; with both hands the author scatters the wildflowers of the Ossianic tongue, and all this generates a rather odd effect in the land of comic opera.
As for the music, the critic’s view changed completely: The composer has much better grasped the theme: his music becomes noticeably excited at the point of the trône de la fête. His overture, of a broad style and a dark-hued colouring, ably heralds the nocturnal phantoms and the storm winds. The duet between Larmor and Malvina is captured most sweetly and tenderly. The arrival of Morven’s belligerent children [n. 2, “Le grand Fingal, pour punir les rebelles”] is an original piece; the sound of the harps, mixed with the bards’ far-off words, creates a magnificently otherworldly effect. The arrival of the bards from Ossian has often been extolled; I doubt that it may be done in a more enchanting manner than this.
This reference to Jean-François Le Sueur’s opera, Ossian or Les Bardes (based on the poem Calthon and Colmal), premièred at the Opéra on July 10, 1804, was an inevitable one; in an equally anticipatory manner, the scale of its success cast a shadow over Méhul’s short work. It is from this perspective that the introductory remarks contained in Le Journal du soir, de politique et de littérature des frères Chaigneau of May 18, 1806 need to be understood: Yesterday, the first performance of the one-act opera Uthal, mimicking the poems modelled on the poems found in Ossian, has achieved a complete success at the Théâtre Feydeau. This work would also have succeeded at the Académie Impériale de Musique, where it would neither have been better performed nor staged with greater care. It´s style is grander and more elevated than is usually to be encountered in the operas put on at the Théâtre Feydeau; but what makes this opera yet more interesting, is that its music comes from the famous Méhul.
The Journal général de France of May 19, 1806 goes even further by specifying: “In no way is it an opéra- comique, but a tragedy in the full sense of the word. The piece is almost entirely written in Alexandrine verse decked out in all the solemnity of the tragic style. The feelings expressed, the characters and the situations all meet the requirements of the style. This new piece has forced the actors to capture the tone, the accent, the gesture and all the formality appropriate to the French stage, and for a first effort, it needs to be said that they have conducted themselves most successfully. On several occasions the eli- mination of recitative in opera and the speaking of it has been proposed. Here, there was truly a grand opéra with a spoken recitative, and the public seemed to be happy with it”. The chronicler seems to have forgotten that there had been no shortage of Alexandrine dialogue on the French operatic stages from Méhul’s Euphrosine through to Cherubini’s Médée.
Alighting on this issue, the Gazette de France of May 19, 1806, took the opportunity to pay tribute to the performers: There is always something odd and discordant involved in the transition from prose transmission to vocal delivery; however, the union between poetry and music is truly deceptive; many actors would be better if they supported this genre: for example, Madame Scio who, equipped with a deep intelligence and sensibility, recites almost as well as she sings. She deserved being called back along with the authors at the end of the work. Gavaudan is already sufficiently well-known in this genre, in which he should limit his ambitions. May he be happy to make us cry at the Opéra-Comique. Elsewhere, both he and the audience might be lost: he is as fierce in the role of Uthal, as Madame Scio is touching in that of Malvina. Solie took the part of Larmor; whilst his voice is in decline it still possesses something of both the venerable and of the paternal. Baptiste, who was entrusted with the role of the first Bard, has perfectly delivered their chant consolateur. He made one forget the scene’s improbability, and that eulogy should suffice for him.
Looking through these accounts two centuries later stirs up interest in how these provocative remarks still manage to make their point; thus, the Chant des bardes, which is close to the opera’s denouement (for whose emotional stance it paves the way), strikes us less for its improbability as for the expressivity of the baritone voice developing around the tonal centre in his upper register and by his brusque interruption. Castil-Blaze informs us that “the theme of this romance or ballade comes from the touching episode of D’Ailly who, in La Henriade, concludes with this line: ‘Il le voit, il l’embrasse, hélas! C’était son fils’”. Voltaire as a guest with Ossian, indeed; there’s some food for thought…
Our relationship with the emerging Romanticism, with its trends, roots and fads has changed. In discovering Uthal we are not searching any more for the newness that its contemporaries had the right to expect, but for that sense of improvement which a retrospective approach can offer us, for works from the past may interest us on the understanding that they registered sufficiently with their own time so as to be able to transport us back there, as well as being rich enough in substance so as to engage with our time, and on it shed a light. In such a way we can make a valid connection with what our predecessors might have had reasons for rejecting outright. One cannot change history; it is history which commands us to rewrite it.
Den Text entnahmen wir der Presseaussendung des Palazetto Bru Zane und der deutschen PR-Agentur Ophelias, München mit Dank; Bild oben: Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of Fallen French Heroes, 1805; Ölgemälde von Anne Louis Girodet-Trioson/de.wikipedia.org.