Semele: From the Ashes

Semele, composed between June 3 and July 4, 1743, was the first large-scale composition George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) had written in almost two years. That previous burst of creativity had resulted in two other oratorios, Messiah and Samson, which had been composed at break-neck speed as well. What makes Handel’s quick composition time for Semele even more remarkable is that he had suffered “a paralytic attack” just two months before.

As an important musical figure in London, Handel’s activities were a common topic of speculation and rumor, from negative public opinion and suggestions that he would either leave England or stop composing just after he staged his final opera in 1741 to reports that he might need a year to recover his health after the last attack. Not only Handel’s health, but also his compositional decisions were fodder for all types of commentary. One of the most controversial concerned whether or not Handel had promised another opera company, led by Lord Middlesex, either a new work or the rights to revive one of his older pieces. It seems that Handel first agreed and then refused to enter into an agreement with Lord Middlesex, and then decided to set the mythological story of Semele, based on a libretto William Congreve (1670-1729) had written about 35 years earlier.

The Story of Semele, “after the manner of an Oratorio,” premiered in February 1744 at Covent Garden. With a “full but not crowded house,” according to Handel’s friend, Mrs. Delany, Semele was performed four times and followed by three other oratorios on biblical stories – Joseph, Samson, and Saul – to complete the season.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding Handel’s decision to write an oratorio based on mythology – a departure from the bounds of the oratorio tradition he established – Semele abounds with beautifully descriptive music for soloists, chorus, and instruments. The oratorio begins with the wedding of Semele and Athamas at the temple of Juno. Semele’s father, Cadmus, and her sister, Ino, are also there as a priest describes and the orchestra depicts a sacrifice being accepted by the goddess. A chorus sings, innocently and ironically, about the “Lucky omens” of the marriage sacrifice, even as Semele is trying to free herself from her union with Athamas because she loves the god Jupiter. After Semele is lifted from Juno’s temple by an eagle – associated with Jupiter – and taken to his palace, the reactions of Cadmus, Ino and Athamas, and Semele are given voice. Ino and Athamas together decry how “love alone has both undone.”

Ino sings about her love for Athamas, while Athamas is still reeling from having been left at the altar by Semele. Cadmus declares his distress over his daughter’s disappearance in the recitative, “Ah, wretched prince.”

In stark contrast, Semele sings a buoyant aria, “Endless Pleasure, Endless Love,”

which is echoed and extended by the final chorus of Act 1.

In Act 2, Jupiter’s rescue of Semele from her marriage at Juno’s temple provokes the goddess’s rage. In another skillful pairing of musical scenes, Juno, in a dramatic accompanied recitative, plots Semele’s demise with her servant Iris. Meanwhile, Semele wakes from sleep (“Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?”)

to a placid passage for harp and continuo. When Jupiter enters her room, she chides him for leaving her. In his aria “Lay your doubts and fears aside” Jupiter explains that while she is mortal and must rest, he is a god and will not tire. Jupiter pretends not to hear Semele’s suggestion that he make her immortal and then announces that Ino is being brought to the palace. With his recitative “See, she appears” and aria “Where‘er you walk” Jupiter evokes the beauties of Arcadia and effectively commands the change of scene from the palace to an idyllic pastoral setting. Handel sets this text, taken from the writings of Alexander Pope (1688-1744), with long, lyrical lines for the voice accompanied by gently pulsing stings, and a walking bass line.

The serenity of Arcadia that closes Act 2 is counterbalanced with the opening of Act 3 in which Juno puts her plot into action. Her plans hinge on the cooperation of the god of sleep, Somnus, but Juno must first wake him from a deep sleep. In a marvelous bit of character painting, Handel writes an aria, (“Leave me, loathsome light!”), in which Somnus awakes, but falls back asleep before he can finish singing. Once fully awake, and after Juno accepts his terms, Somnus agrees to help her gain entry into Jupiter’s guarded palace. When Juno, now disguised as Ino, enters Semele’s room, she plays to Semele’s desire for immortality by calling her a goddess. In response to Semele’s protests that she is not, Juno gives Semele a mirror that has been altered to show Semele as a goddess. Juno knows her plan is working as Semele sings her most florid aria (“Myself I shall adore”).

Juno, knowing her suggestion will be the death of Semele, then tells her rival to ask Jupiter to show himself in his true form: “You shall partake then of immortality.”

Although Jupiter tries to dissuade Semele from this request, she is adamant. In another pair of arias, Juno sings victoriously (“At once from my rival and jealousy freed!”)

and Semele, as she is dying, declares, “too late I now repent, my pride and impious vanity.”

The chorus moralizes that although “nature to each allots his proper sphere,” we make mistakes “and all our boasted fire is lost in smoke.” Here the reference to smoke may relate to the opening scene, during which the offering to Juno at the wedding of Athamas and Semele was mocked by Semele’s appeal to Jupiter.  To finish the oratorio, Apollo descends to proclaim that “a phoenix shall arise” from Semele’s ashes.


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As Semele’s desires are reflected in the mirror given to her by Juno, so too are other characters revealed through her wishes. Jupiter’s “rescue” of Semele from her marriage to Athamas highlights the god’s infidelities, which incite Juno’s rage. Finally, the eventual union of Ino and Athamas as a loving married couple also put Semele’s desires in relief.

The interactions between gods and mortals drive the drama of this oratorio. In Act 1, the gods do not interact directly with the mortals. Juno is present only through the priests at her temple and Jupiter only in the eagle and the description given by Semele’s father. In Act 2, however, both gods are present and active forces in the drama. Juno plots Semele’s demise. When Semele asks Jupiter to make her immortal, their relationship changes. Jupiter no longer talks with Semele, but tries to distract her. In Act 3, Semele’s actions, although influenced by Juno, are born of her own desires. Jupiter has no way to deflect Semele’s request and is, in effect, outwitted by his wife.

In Semele, Handel chose a libretto with a title character whose own aspirations become so twisted that she ultimately becomes a pawn. Moreover, Semele’s actions fall outside social mores and she repents only when faced with death. Jupiter and Juno also act outside accepted social conventions. There is no sacrifice for the greater good; the main actions in the plot focus on marital infidelity and jealousy. Only with the appearance of Apollo at the end of the oratorio is there a sense of hope that, from all the missteps that have gone before, Bacchus, in this context a figure representing renewal and hope, will emerge.

In this reading, the plot is less about moralizing and more a detached observation of the trends in a society. It may even be understood as a commentary on the political situation in England at the time. In the minds of many, the story was a reminder of King George II and his long-time mistress Amalie Sophie of Walmoden. The king was known to spend a great deal of time with her in Hannover, (Germany), but, after the death of the queen in 1737, George II brought Amalie to Kensington Palace with the title Lady Yarmouth.

Reaction to Semele in Handel’s day was mixed. Charles Jennens, Handel’s librettist for Messiah and Saul, wrote in his copy of a Handel biography that Semele was “No Oratorio, but a baudy Opera.” However, Mrs. Delaney wrote, “Semele is charming; the more I hear it, the better I like it.”

The exact reasons why Handel chose to set this libretto in 1743 may never be completely understood. But those details should not overshadow this composition, which gives us so much to ponder both in terms of the text itself and the myriad of meanings imbued through Handel’s exquisite score.

 

Teresa M. Neff