SEMELE (HWV 58)
Libretto: Unknown, based on a libretto for an English opera by William Congreve, circa. 1706, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, with texts from Pope and other works by Congreve.
First performance: 10th February 1744, Covent Garden Theatre, London.
- Elisabeth Duparc, called "La Francesina" (Soprano)
- John Beard (Tenor)
- Daniel Sullivan (Countertenor)
- Esther Young (Contralto)
- Christina Maria Avoglio (Soprano)
- Henry Theodore Reinhold (Bass)
Cadmus, King of Thebes, and his family have travelled to the Temple of Juno in Boeotia to solemnise the marriage of his daughter Semele to Prince Athamus. The Priests and Augurs proclaim that the omens for the marriage seem propitious, but Semele has been inventing one excuse after another to delay the wedding because she is secretly in love with Jupiter. She pleads to Jupiter for help, and his thunder interrupts the ceremony and extinguishes the sacrificial flames on the altar of Juno, his wife. The Priests advise everyone to flee from the temple, but the despairing Athamus and Semele’s sister Ino remain behind.
Ino reveals to the astonished Athamus that she loves him. Cadmus interrupts with the shocking news that Semele, surrounded by azure flames, has been abducted by a giant eagle, ‘On purple wings descending’, that left behind a scent of ‘Celestial odour, and ambrosial dew’. The Priests and Augurs identify this eagle as having been Jupiter, and Semele is heard to announce that ‘Endless pleasure, endless love, Semele enjoys above’.
Juno, angered at her husband’s adultery, has ordered her messenger Iris to discover where Jupiter and Semele are. Iris reports that Jupiter has built his new mortal lover an elaborate new palace on Mount Cithaeron, and warns that it is guarded by fierce dragons that never sleep. The enraged Juno swears vengeance, and hastens to visit Somnus, the God of Sleep, in order to enlist his aid.
Semele, attended by Loves and Zephyrs, yearns for Jupiter. He arrives, in human form, reassures her of his fidelity, and reminds her that she is only mortal and needs time to rest between their bouts of lovemaking. Semele professes devotion to him, but reveals her discontent that she has not been made immortal. Jupiter, recognising that Semele has dangerous ambition, transforms the palace to Arcadia, charms her with its pastoral delights, and magically summons her sister Ino to keep her company. The enraptured Ino describes the heavenly music she has heard on the way to Mount Cithaeron whilst carried by two winged Zephyrs. The sisters, and a chorus of nymphs and swains, sing of the joys of music.
The cavernous dwelling of Somnus is rudely disturbed by the arrival of Juno and Iris. He lethargically refuses to help Juno, but is enlivened when Juno promises him the reward of his favourite nymph, Pasithea. Juno orders Somnus to give Jupiter an erotic dream that will make him desperate to enjoy Semele’s favours, at any price. Juno takes Somnus’s magical lead rod in order to beguile the dragons and Ino to sleep. She assumes the form of Ino, pretends to believe that Semele has been made immortal, and gives Semele a magical mirror that deceives the foolish girl into thinking herself even more beautiful than usual. Juno advises that if Semele wishes to become truly immortal then she must refuse Jupiter sexual favours until he promises to grant any wish she desires, and that she must request that he come to her in his true, undisguised form (‘like himself, the mighty Thunderer’). Semele eagerly accepts this advice. Juno departs when she senses the approach of Jupiter.
Inflamed by desire for Semele, Jupiter is astonished when she acts coldly toward him. He rashly swears an irrevocable vow to grant her whatever she desires, and she demands that he visit her in his natural guise. He reacts with horror, knowing that his lightning bolts will certainly kill her, but Semele refuses to listen to reason, assuming that Jupiter does not wish to grant her immortality. Left alone, Jupiter tries to find a way to save the life of Semele, but dejectedly realises that ‘She must a victim fall’. Juno gloats in triumph at her victory. Semele sees Jupiter descend as a fiery cloud of lightning and thunder, laments her folly, and dies consumed in flames.
Ino, safely returned to Boeotia, announces the tragic news that Semele has perished. However, some good has come of it: Jupiter has ordained that Ino and Athamus must be wed, and Apollo prophesies that from Semele’s ashes Bacchus, God of Wine, and unborn child of Semele and Jupiter, will arise to bring to the earth a delight ‘More mighty than Love’.
© 2007 David Vickers
With the final performance of Deidamia in February 1741 Handel bade farewell to Italian opera. The success of his English oratorios, confirmed by the reception of Messiah in London in 1743, led him into a new creative phase. Messiah was followed by Samson in February 1743, and played in competition with the Earl of Middlesex’s attempts to keep Italian opera alive in the Haymarket. But his company, as with the two Italian opera companies that had played in London before, was collapsing. In August 1743, Horace Walpole wrote to his friend Horace Mann:
‘I am sorry you are engaged in the Opera. I have found it a most dear undertaking! I was not in the management: Lord Middlesex was chief. We were thirty subscribers, at two hundred pounds each, which was to last four years, and no other demands ever to be made. Instead of that, we have been made to pay fifty-six pounds over and above the subscription in one winter. I told the secretary in a passion, that it was the last money I would ever pay for the follies of directors.’
But Middlesex persisted nonetheless, and a further season was mounted.
For his next work, Handel turned away from Old Testament texts to Greek mythology. Reviving a libretto that had been written by William Congreve in 1705, and possibly with the assistance of Newburgh Hamilton, Handel chose the story of Semele. It is clear from his re-arrangement of the text that he considered this work an Italian opera in all but name. Congreve’s libretto was rewritten to accommodate the da capo aria form that was the basic musical structure of the opera seria. Handel combined these arias with extensive choral sections, and provided more accompanied recitative’s than he was to write in any other work.
Semele was first performed at the Covent Garden Theatre on 10th February 1744. It was presented ‘after the manner of an oratorio’, that is in concert form rather than fully staged, but many recognised it for what it really was. In his copy of Mainwaring’s ‘Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frideric Handel’, Charles Jennens was to write next to the listing of Semele as an oratorio: ‘not an oratorio but a baudy opera’. Handel already had many enemies in London at this time, and this direct challenge to the opera company in the Haymarket did not make him any new friends. Indeed, he had argued with the Prince of Wales himself. Mrs. Delaney, Handel’s neighbour in Brook Street, wrote to her sister: ‘Handel says the Prince is quite out of his good graces!’.
The day after the first performance, Mary Delaney reported her impressions of Semele to her sister: ‘…it is a delightful piece of music…There is a four-part song that is delightfully pretty; Francesina is extremely improved, her notes are more distinct, and there is something in her running-divisions that is quite surprizing…’. Referring to Handel’s enemies as ‘the Goths’, she continued: ‘…there was no disturbance at the play-house and the Goths were not so very absurd as to declare, in a public manner, their disapprobation of such a composer.’
But the audience was confused. More used to sacred works from Handel’s pen during the Lenten period, the ‘baudy’ nature of Semele’s story was a little too much for them. Mrs. Delaney was concerned that, as Semele was a ‘profane story’ her husband ‘does not think it proper for him to go.’ Opposition to the work was growing: ‘…Semele has a strong party against it, viz. the fine ladies, petit maitres, and ignoramus’s. All the opera people are enraged at Handel…’.
Semele ran for just four performances initially, with two further performances in December of the same year. The music for these last two was slightly re-written, and Handel interpolated arias from Arminio, Giustino and Alcina. But this was no more successful, and after 1744 Handel never revived Semele again.