|George Frideric Handel|
Semele (HWV 58) is an opera, or oratorio, in three acts by George Frideric Handel.
In the early 1740s, the performance of oratorios at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, represented George Frideric Handel’s chief concert activity in London. His biblical oratorios, Israel in Egypt (written 1738), Messiah (1741), Samson (1743) among them, bore some relationship to Greek tragedy, and unsurprisingly he decided 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 over a one-month period (from June 3 to July 4) in 1743.
The work naturally took shape as an opera. Handel, however, eyed a place for it on the Theatre Royal's Lenten concert series the following February. Semele was fashioned therefore for presentation "in the manner of an oratorio." Besides securing the work's first performance, and enabling Handel to get paid, the decision also created a spurious identity for Semele as a concert piece, one much championed and "claimed" by choral groups.
That the work is in reality more an opera than an oratorio, is implicit in playwright Congreve's libretto, amplified by Alexander Pope, and in the score. As 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."
The work was first performed on 10 February 1744 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London. However Handel's camouflaging failed. The audience for the concert series, held yearly during Lent at London's Theatre Royal, Covent Garden expected Bible-based subject matter. Most oratorios, including most of those by Handel, would have met 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. It displeased those who attended the Lenten seasons for a different kind of uplift, and, being in English, likewise irritated the supporters of true Italian opera. As Winton Dean suggested 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 on February 10, 1744, 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.
Pandering to his critics, Handel did rustle up two further performances, in December 1744, at the King’s Theatre, London. Changes and additions were made, including interspersed arias in Italian (for the opera crowd) and the excision of sexually explicit lines (for the devoted). Then Semele, perhaps unsurely matched to the spirit of its time, fell into long neglect.
Handel's Semele had its first stage performance in Cambridge, England, in 1925 and its London stage première in 1954. It was produced on four occasions by the Handel Opera Society under Charles Farncombe (1959, 1961, 1964 and 1975), entered the repertory of the English National Opera (then Sadler’s Wells Opera) in 1970, and returned — after a 238-year wait — to the Royal Opera House in 1982, conducted on the latter two occasions by Charles Mackerras. The American stage première took place at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago in 1959. Semele was performed again in Washington, DC, in 1980, and at Carnegie Hall, New York, with Kathleen Battle in the title role and John Nelson conducting, in 1985.
A new production opened at New York City Opera on September 13, 2006, directed by Stephen Lawless and containing 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. Milwaukee's Florentine Opera Company is staging a recreation of Director John LaBouchardiere's Scottish Opera Production, conducted by Jane Glover at the Pabst Theater, starring Jennifer Aylmer and Robert Breault.
|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|
- "Hymen, haste, thy torch prepare!" (Act 1, Athamas)
- "Oh Jove, in pity teach me which to choose" (Act 1, Semele)
- "Hence, hence, Iris hence away!" (Act 2, Juno)
- "Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?" (Act 2, Semele)
- "Where'er you walk" (Act 2, Jupiter)
- "Leave me, loathsome light" (Act 3, Somnus)
- "Myself I shall adore" (Act 3, Semele)
- "I am ever granting, you always complain" (Act 3, Semele)
- "No, no, I’ll take no less" (Act 3, Semele)
- "Above measure is the pleasure" (Act 3, Juno)
- 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 Silvia McNair as Iris, the countertenor Michael Chance as Athamas, and the bass Samuel Ramey as the god of sleep Somnus. Deutsche Grammophon 436 782-2, recorded in London in 1990 and released in 1993. (This is the reference recording, according to ClassicsToday.)
- Anthony 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.
Score of Semele (ed. Friedrich Chrysander, Leipzig 1860)
- Amadeus Almanac, accessed 5 June 2008
- Dean, Winton (1959), Handel's dramatic oratorios and masques, Oxford University Press
- Synopsis of Handel's Semele from the Royal Opera House
- Congreve's libretto for Semele hosted by the University of Oregon.
- Congreve's libretto for Semele hosted by Stanford University.
- A rare Semele by Handel, review by Donal Henahan in The New York Times, February 25, 1985