|George Frideric Handel|
In the early 1740s, oratorios at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, were George Frideric Handel's chief concert activity in London. Several of them—Israel in Egypt (written 1738), Messiah (1741) and Samson (1743), for instance—bore some semblance to Greek tragedy, and this led Handel to venture into the world of classical drama.
He took up William Congreve's libretto for the 1707 John Eccles opera Semele, writing the music in a month, from 3 June to 4 July 1743. The work naturally took shape as an opera, but Handel eyed a place for it on the Theatre Royal's oratorio-centered Lenten concert series the following February (1744), knowing that this would secure the work's first performance and enable him to get paid. So he fashioned Semele for presentation "in the manner of an oratorio"—a wolf in sheep's clothing.
His ploy did not delight the organizers of the series, resulting in few performances, and it created a spurious and long-lasting identity for Semele as a concert piece, one championed and "claimed" even today by choral groups. That the work is more an opera than an oratorio is implicit in playwright Congreve's libretto, amplified by Alexander Pope, and in the score. As the late Lord Harewood put it:
the music of Semele is so full of variety, the recitative so expressive, the orchestration so inventive, the characterization so apt, the general level of invention so high, the action so full of credible situation and incident — in a word, the piece as a whole is so suited to the operatic stage — that one can only suppose its neglect to have been due to an act of abnegation on the part of opera companies.
Semele was first performed on 10 February 1744 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London, as part of a concert series held yearly during Lent. The audience naturally expected Bible-based subject matter; most oratorios, including most of Handel's, meet this expectation. But the amorous topic of Semele, which is practically a creation of the late Restoration Period, transparently drew on Greek myths, not Hebrew laws, and so it displeased those attending for a different kind of uplift. Being in English, Semele likewise irritated the supporters of true Italian opera. Winton Dean in his book Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios:
- "The public [in 1744] found [Semele's] tone too close to that of the discredited Italian opera and set it down as an oratorio manqué; where they expected wholesome Lenten bread, they received a glittering stone dug from the ruins of Greek mythology."
As a result, only four performances took place. The cast at the première included Elisabeth Duparc (‘La Francesina’) in the title role, Esther Young as Juno (and Ino), and John Beard as Jupiter. Henry Reinhold sang the bass roles. Handel seems to have interchanged some of the music between singers.
Later, in December 1744, Handel rustled up two further performances, this time at the King's Theatre, after pandering to his critics with changes and additions that included interspersed arias in Italian (for the opera crowd) and the excision of sexually explicit lines (for the devoted).
Perhaps unsurely matched to the spirit of its time, Semele then fell into prolonged neglect until its first stage performances — in Cambridge, England, in 1925 and in London in 1954. These fueled an enthusiasm that has not since lapsed.
Semele was staged on four occasions (1959, 1961, 1964 and 1975) by the Handel Opera Society under Charles Farncombe, and it entered the repertory of the English National Opera (then Sadler’s Wells Opera) in 1970. The opera returned in 1982 — after a 238-year hiatus — to Covent Garden (the Royal Opera House), conducted, as at Sadler’s Wells, by Charles Mackerras.
The American stage première took place at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago in 1959. Semele was performed in Washington, DC, in 1980, and at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1985, on the latter occasion with Kathleen Battle in the title role and John Nelson conducting. (A recording with a similar cast was made in 1990 and issued on the Deutsche Grammophon label.)
A new production opened at New York City Opera on 13 September 2006. Directed by Stephen Lawless, it made metaphorical references to Marilyn Monroe, U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, and Jacqueline Kennedy. Elizabeth Futral sang Semele, Vivica Genaux portrayed Juno (and Ino), and Robert Breault sang Jupiter.
Zurich Opera in Switzerland mounted Semele in 2007 as a vehicle for Cecilia Bartoli, with Birgit Remmert and Charles Workman as Juno and Jupiter and William Christie conducting. This staging was taped, issued as a Decca DVD, and successfully transferred (in 2010) to Vienna's Theater an der Wien.
Milwaukee's Florentine Opera company in 2009 staged a recreation of director John La Bouchardiere's earlier Scottish Opera production, conducted by Jane Glover at the Pabst Theater; it starred Jennifer Aylmer, Robert Breault, and Sandra Piques Eddy.
In September of the same year a new staging by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan, conducted by Rousset, with Les Talens Lyriques, opened at La Monnaie in Brussels. This moved, on 24 October 2010, to Beijing's Poly Theater as part of the Beijing Music Festival — the first major production of a baroque opera in the People's Republic of China. In May 2012 this production moved to the Canadian Opera Company, receiving generally poor  reviews for having excised Handel's finale and haphazardly introducing Buddhist themes in an incongruent manner to the source material.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, 10 February 1744
(Conductor: Georg Friedrich Handel)
|Cadmus, King of Thebes||bass||Henry Reinhold|
|Semele, daughter to Cadmus, belov'd
by and in love with Jupiter
|soprano||Elisabeth Duparc ("La Francesina")|
|Athamas, a prince of Bœotia, in love
with, and design'd to marry Semele
|Ino, sister to Semele, in love with Athamas||mezzo-soprano||Esther Young|
|Iris||soprano||Christina Maria Avoglio|
|High priest||bass||Henry Reinhold|
|Chorus of priests, augurs, loves, zephyrs, nymphs, swains and attendants|
In the temple of Juno, Cadmus, King of Thebes, is preparing for the marriage of his daughter Semele to Athamas, Prince of Boeotia. However, the bride is hesitant for she is secretly in love with Jupiter. She calls on the god to help her in her predicament.
Semele’s sister, Ino, is also distressed by the impending marriage but for different reasons: she herself is in love with Athamas. Jupiter has heard Semele’s plea: his thunderbolts make it clear that in spite of Juno’s approval, he violently opposes Semele’s marriage. All flee in terror.
Ino attempts to comfort Athamas, but in so doing she reveals her love for him. Cadmus interrupts their confusion and describes the extraordinary event he has just witnessed: as they fled the temple Semele was suddenly carried off by an eagle. Cadmus’s courtiers bring the happy news that it was in fact Jupiter who abducted the young girl. As the act ends, Semele is seen enjoying her role as the god’s new mistress.
Iris reports to Juno the whereabouts of Semele’s newly built, dragon-guarded palace. Enraged, Juno swears to destroy her rival; but first she decides to set out and find Somnus, the god of sleep, in order to enlist his help in achieving her revenge.
Waking in her bedroom, Semele languidly awaits the return of her lover. Jupiter appears and reassures her of his love. Semele tells him that she is uneasy when she compares her mortality to his godliness, causing Jupiter to be alarmed by her ambition.
Rather than telling her that she can never attain immortality, he decides to divert her. His plans include bringing her sister Ino from Earth. Semele’s fears are calmed for the moment and when Ino appears the two sisters extol the music of the spheres.
Somnus is sleeping peacefully in his cave when Juno and Iris arrive. It is only when Juno speaks the name of the nymph Pasithea that Somnus awakes. In exchange for the nymph, Somnus agrees to help Juno. He is even prepared to lend her his magic, sleep-inducing wand, which she will need to elude the dragons that guard Semele’s palace.
Juno, now disguised as Ino, appears to Semele. She first presents her ‘sister’ with a magic mirror which causes Semele instantly to fall in love with her own image. Juno then craftily advises the young woman how to obtain the immortality she desires: Jupiter must be tricked into making love to her in his true god-like form, rather than in his mortal disguise. Semele is delighted and thanks her profusely.
Jupiter returns, inflamed with desire. Semele rejects him until he swears to give her whatever she wants. Continuing to follow Juno’s advice, she asks him to appear in all his godly splendour. The god is horrified and desperately warns her of the mortal danger she is in. Semele refuses to accept anything less than the fulfilment of her wish and leaves Jupiter to lament his part in her inevitable destruction.
Juno gloats over her triumph, while Semele realizes too late the consequences of her ambition. As she approaches the godhead, the flames of Jupiter’s power burn her and she dies.
The people lament Semele’s death. Ino describes a dream in which Hermes revealed Jupiter’s wish for her and Athamas to wed. Jupiter himself now appears and announces that his union with Semele will result in the birth of Bacchus, the god of wine. The people are left to celebrate this unexpected piece of good news.
- Anthony Lewis, Jennifer Vivyan et al., 1955.
- Johannes Somary, conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, with Sheila Armstrong as Semele, Helen Watts as Juno, and Robert Tear as Jupiter. Smaller roles are sung by Felicity Palmer, Mark Deller, and Justino Díaz. Vanguard Classics, 1973.
- John Eliot Gardiner, conducting the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, with Norma Burrowes as Semele, Della Jones as Juno, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Jupiter. Erato Disques, 1983.
- John Nelson, conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke's, live in 1985 at Carnegie Hall, New York, with Kathleen Battle, Marilyn Horne, Rockwell Blake, Jeffrey Gall. Legendary Recordings. Poor sound, but some reviewers have found it more exciting than the studio recording.
- John Nelson, conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, with the soprano Kathleen Battle as Semele, the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne as both Ino and the goddess Juno, and the tenor John Aler as the god Jupiter. The smaller roles included the soprano Sylvia McNair as Iris, the countertenor Michael Chance as Athamas, the bass Samuel Ramey as the god of sleep Somnus, and bass-baritone Mark S. Doss as the High Priest. Deutsche Grammophon 435 7822 6, recorded in London in 1990 and released in 1993 (Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording of 1994). (This is the reference recording, according to ClassicsToday.)
- Antony Walker, conducting the Sirius Ensemble, with the Cantillation chorus and the soprano Anna Ryberg as Semele, mezzo-sprano Sally-Anne Russell as both Juno and Ino, and tenor Angus Wood as Jupiter. Smaller roles are sung by sopranos Belinda Montgomery and Shelli Gilhome, countertenor Tobias Cole, and bass Stephen Bennett. Taped live in Sydney, Australia in December, 2002. ABC Classics 980047-0.
- Decca DVD 0743323 is available of the Operhaus Zurich 2007 production starring Cecilia Bartoli as Semele, Charles Workman as Jupiter, Birgit Remmert as Juno. 154 mins. DTS 5.0 and LPCM stereo.
- What Who When & Where (Fact sheet), Sydney, Australia: Pinchgut Opera, 2002-09-01, retrieved 20 September 2012
- The New York Times, A Chinese Spin on Baroque Opera, 16 September 2009] (web-site Retrieved 26 July 2010)
- Xinhua, Myth and Fact share the same stage (Retrieved 26 October 2010)
- Amadeus Almanac, accessed 5 June 2008
- Dean, Winton (1959), Handel's dramatic oratorios and masques, Oxford University Press
- Congreve's libretto for Semele hosted by the University of Oregon.[dead link]?
- Congreve's libretto for Semele hosted by Stanford University.
- A rare Semele by Handel, review by Donal Henahan in The New York Times, 25 February 1985