Major Operas | Semele by George Frideric Handel | Late Baroque
Semele was first performed at Covent Garden on 10 February 1744 in the manner of an oratorio, without action or scenery. Nevertheless, Handel’s occasional collaborator Charles Jennens regarded it as ‘a bawdy opera’.
Congreve’s libretto, based on a story from Ovid, had originally been set as an opera by John Eccles in 1707, but it was never performed. However the libretto came to Handel’s attention, it inspired him to compose a rich work in which the foolish and gullible Semele steals the show with her florid songs ‘Endless pleasure’ and ‘Myself I shall adore’. Handel’s music fits each character perfectly, whether it is the malicious venom of the jealous Juno, or the sweet and simple Athamus. The Arcadian music, especially that for Jupiter (‘Where’er you walk’) and a sleep scene for Somnus, ranks among his finest achievements, but, despite its quality, Semele was not a success: it was performed only six times during Handel’s lifetime. Several recent productions have proved that his secular ‘oratorio’ is ideal for the modern opera house.
Premiered: 1744, London
Libretto by William Congreve, after Ovid
In the temple of Juno, the people of Thebes celebrate the marriage of Semele, daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes, to Athamas. The goddess is seen to approve of the match. Semele is unwilling to go ahead with the wedding and prays to Jupiter, whom she is in love with, for guidance. Semele’s sister Ino is also in a state of distress, for she loves Athamas. Jupiter expresses his disapproval of the marriage with a clap of thunder. The flame on the altar is extinguished and the people, with the exception of Athamas and Ino, flee. Ino tries to express her love for Athamas but he misconstrues her words. Cadmus returns and relates that Semele has been borne up to the heavens by a giant eagle. The priests return, not mourning but celebrating Semele’s departure, as she can be heard in the distance singing of endless pleasure and love.
Juno, wife of Jupiter, is enraged when Iris tells her of the house that Jupiter has built for Semele, and swears vengeance. Iris warns her of the dragons that guard the gates, and Juno decides to employ Somnus, god of sleep, to help her. Semele sleeps in her new home. On awakening, she feels lonely and ignored by Jupiter and wishes for sleep to reclaim her. Jupiter tries to reassure her but she maintains that while she remains mortal she cannot help but be dissatisfied. Jupiter is concerned that Semele has aspirations to immortality and attempts to distract her. He sends for Ino and transforms the surroundings into Arcadia, encouraging Semele to enjoy the pleasures of nature. Ino arrives, telling excitedly of her journey to the heavens and the beautiful music she has heard. Everyone celebrates the joy of music.
Juno tries to persuade Somnus to help her carry out her plans. He is unenthusiastic until she promises...
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