Semele (Handel)

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For the opera by Eccles, see Semele (Eccles). For the opera by Marais, see Sémélé.

Semele (HWV 58) is a 'musical drama' in three parts by George Frideric Handel. The story comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses and concerns Semele, mother of Bacchus. Handel also referred to the work as 'The Story of Semele'.

The work is classified as a 'musical drama', but it does fuse elements of opera, oratorio and classical drama, which anticipates the grand operas of the nineteenth century. However, to explain: it is not classed as an oratorio because that term is used for works based on sacred or religious texts - Semele has a secular text. Neither is it opera due to the large number of choruses (there are 10 in Semele; whereas 2 or 3 would be typical of a Handel opera). These chorus are in oratorio anthem style. Likewise, unlike opera, several incidents rely for their impact on the audience's imagination (rather than by direct portrayal), notably Semele's death and insinuations of her sexual relationship with Jupiter.[1]


Handel's last Italian opera, Deidamia, was performed in 1741. After this time, he concentrated on oratorio and musical dramas with English texts. Many of these, including Semele, were premiered at the Covent Garden Theatre, beginning with Alexander's Feast in 1736 and finishing with The Triumph of Time and Truth in 1757. As a result, in the early 1740s, oratorios at the Covent Garden Theatre were George Frideric Handel's chief activity. While most works had sacred or religious texts, two stand out for being secular: Hercules and Semele.

The libretto was written by William Congreve around 1705-6 and originally set to music in John Eccles opera Semele. Handel's text was adapted by an unknown collaborator and he wrote the music in just over a month, from 3 June to 4 July 1743. Semele contains self-borrowings from Giulio Cesare and Fra pensieri qual pensiero (HWV 115), as well as borrowings from Alessandro Scarlatti (Notably Il Pompeo), Porta, Keiser and Telemann. Noteworthy in the score are the number and quality of accompanied recitatives (a characteristic it shares with Il Pompeo), and the sheer variety of style and tempo markings (23, with nine unique in English works).

The musical drama takes a similar shape to an opera, but Handel eyed a place for it on the Covent Garden Theatre's oratorio-centered Lenten season of public concerts the following February (1744). So he fashioned Semele for presentation in the manner of an oratorio — a wolf in sheep's clothing to those not already enlightened to Ovid's Metamorphoses. His ploy to bring a powerful story to the theatre met, perhaps predictably, with mixed reactions. Mrs Delany called it a 'delightful piece of music', but commented, 'Semele has a strong party against it, viz. the fine ladies, petit maitres, and ignoramus's. All the opera people are enraged at Handel.' This probably related to the supporters of the rival Middlesex Opera Company, for whom Handel would not write. Harsh criticism is also known from Messiah-librettist Charles Jennens who recorded it was 'a baudy Opera'.

The questionable morals of whether Semele was 'profane' and so perhaps not suitable for decent members of the audience meant that the work quickly fell from the repertoire, only being revived once by Handel.

However, Semele remains a work of high quality. 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.

Performance history[edit]

Semele was first performed on 10 February 1744 at the Covent Garden Theatre, London, as part of a concert series held yearly during Lent. The audience naturally expected Bible-based subject matter. But the amorous topic of Semele, which is a creation of the late Restoration Period, transparently drew on Greek myths, and so it displeased those attending for a different kind of uplift. Being in English, Semele likewise irritated the supporters of true Italian opera, particularly as Handel would also not write for the rival Middlesex Opera Company. 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, on 1 and 8 December 1744, Handel presented a revised version, this time at the King's Theatre, after cutting four sections of dialogue containing sexual innuendo and making additions that included interspersed arias in Italian (for the opera crowd) from Arminio and Giustino.

20th century

Semele fell into prolonged neglect until its first stage performances, in Cambridge, England, in 1925 and in London in 1954. These fueled an enthusiasm of the work 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 Sadler's Wells Opera (now English National 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.)

In 1999, Semele returned to the English National Opera in London in a highly regarded production by Robert Carsen. Rosemary Joshua played Semele, John Mark-Ainsley was Jupiter, Susan Bickley as Juno, and Sarah Connolly the sister Ino. The production was revived in 2004 with Carolyn Sampson (Semele), Ian Bostridge (Jupiter) and Patricia Bardon (Juno).

21st century

Pinchgut Opera staged a production in 2002 in the City Recital Hall, Sydney, conducted by Antony Walker and directed by Justin Way.[2] There is a recording of this production.

In 2004 a staged production directed by David McVicar and conducted by Marc Minkowski opened at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. (This was revived in 2010 by conductor Christophe Rousset.)

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.

In 2007, Zurich Opera in Switzerland mounted Robert Carsen's 1999 production of Semele 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.[3] 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.[4] In May 2012 this production moved to the Canadian Opera Company, receiving generally poor[5][6] 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)
Jupiter tenor John Beard
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
alto Daniel Sullivan
Ino, sister to Semele, in love with Athamas mezzo-soprano Esther Young
Somnus bass Henry Reinhold
Apollo tenor John Beard
Juno mezzo-soprano Esther Young
Iris soprano Christina Maria Avoglio
High priest bass Henry Reinhold
Chorus of priests, augurs, loves, zephyrs, nymphs, swains and attendants


Part 1[edit]

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.

Part 2[edit]

Iris, messenger of the Gods, 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.

Part 3[edit]

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. Apollo himself now appears and announces that Bacchus, god of wine, will be born phoenix-like from Semele's ashes. The people are left to celebrate this unexpected piece of good news.




  1. ^ The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia Annette Landgraf, David Vickers Cambridge University Press, 26 Nov 2009, pp579, entry by John K Andrews
  2. ^ a b What Who When & Where (Fact sheet), Sydney, Australia: Pinchgut Opera, 2002-09-01, retrieved 20 September 2012 
  3. ^ The New York Times, A Chinese Spin on Baroque Opera, 16 September 2009] (web-site Retrieved 26 July 2010)
  4. ^ Xinhua, Myth and Fact share the same stage (Retrieved 26 October 2010)
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  • Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Semele, 10 February 1744". Almanacco Amadeus (Italian).
  • Dean, Winton (1959), Handel's dramatic oratorios and masques, Oxford University Press 

Score of Semele (ed. Friedrich Chrysander, Leipzig 1860)

External links[edit]