George Frideric Handel • Semele
Opera after the manner of an Oratorio in three acts
Libretto by William Congreve
Print programme (PDF)
“Semele is charming; the more I hear it, the more I like it.” This is how Handel devotee Mary Delany expressed her enthusiasm for her revered master’s most recent work in a letter to a friend. Other contemporaries, however, had their difficulties with the composition. “Semele,” as Handel’s biographer John Mainwaring put it as early as 1761, “is an English opera, but is called an oratorio and is performed as such,” while Charles Jennens, the editor of the Messiah, remarked curtly: “No oratorio, but a baudy opera.” Handel himself had announced the work as an “opera after the manner of an oratorio,” thus making reference to the special nature of the work in his oeuvre.
The plot: Jupiter, father of the gods, is in love with the mortal Semele, daughter of the Theban King Cadmus, and is having a secret affair with her. However, Jupiter’s lawful wife, Juno, finds out and jealously plots her revenge. In the guise of Semele’s sister, she talks her into believing that she will attain divine honours if she persuades Jupiter to reveal himself to her in his divine form. Jupiter, who has sworn that he will grant Semele’s every wish, appears the next time to her attired with the insignia of his power – clouds, rain, the winds, thunder and his ineluctable thunderbolt. Semele cannot withstand the divine light and is burnt to death by Jupiter’s thunderbolt. According to Ovid, Jupiter cut the child out of the pregnant Semele’s body and planted it in his thigh in order to carry it there until it was born. This child was the god Dionysus.