Semele
  • George Frideric Handel. Opera in three acts. 1743.
  • Libretto by William Congreve, after Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
  • First concert performance at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London, on 10th February 1744.
CHARACTERS

Cadmus, King of Thebes

bass

Semele, his daughter

soprano

Ino, her sister

contralto

Athamas, Prince of Boeotia

countertenor

Jupiter

tenor

Juno

contralto

Iris, messenger & attendant of Juno

soprano

Somnus, god of sleep

bass

Apollo

tenor

Semele is to marry Athamas, but pleads for delay, while Ino, who herself loves Athamas, is distressed. At the wedding ceremony in Juno’s temple, thunder is heard and Semele is taken up to heaven by a great eagle. She has been seized by her lover Jupiter, arousing the jealousy of Juno. Semele, however, while enjoying the pleasures of the country whither she has been transported, longs for immortality. Jupiter, who appears to her in human form, changes the scene to Arcadia and brings Ino to be her companion. Juno recruits the aid of the god of sleep and approaches Semele, now alone, in the guise of Ino, persuading her to ask Jupiter to appear to her in his true form. When Jupiter returns to her, Semele makes him swear to grant her wish, which he does with reluctance. He appears as a cloud of flame, and Semele dies. Ino returns home with news of what has happened and the divine command that she marry Athamas. The ashes of Semele, Apollo now promises, will bring forth Bacchus, god of wine.

Congreve had intended his opera, with music by John Eccles, to mark the opening of the Queen’s Theatre in London in 1706. The advent of Italian opera forestalled this. Handel’s later setting was intended for concert performance, although it has, since his time, been staged. It was written at a period when Handel was increasingly involved in English oratorio and like other such works it makes considerable use of the chorus, an important element of the newly developed form. To contemporaries Semele seemed neither one thing nor the other. It contains music of great beauty, with Jupiter’s Arcadian Where’er you walk among the best known of all Handel arias. Somnus, the god of sleep, wakens to Leave me, loathsome light, roused from his lethargy by Juno, who has earlier provoked Iris to immediate energetic action in Hence, Iris, hence away. Semele herself has a number of moving arias, including O sleep, why dost thou leave me?.