- Semele (Handel)
HWV58) 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
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 Reinholdsang 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 Housein 1982, conducted on the latter two occasions by Charles Mackerras. The American stage première took place at the Ravinia Festivalnear Chicago in 1959. "Semele" was performed again in Washington, DC, in 1980, and at Carnegie Hall, New York, with Kathleen Battlein the title role and John Nelson conducting, in 1985.
A new production opened at
New York City Operaon September 13, 2006, directed by Stephen Lawless and containing metaphorical references to Marilyn Monroe, U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedyand Bill Clinton, and Jacqueline Kennedy. Elizabeth Futralsang Semele, Vivica Genauxportrayed Juno (and Ino), and Robert Breault sang Jupiter.
*"Hence, hence, Iris hence away!"
*"Hymen, haste, thy torch prepare!"
*"I am ever granting, you always complain"
*"Leave me, loathsome light"
*"Myself I shall adore"
*"No, no, I’ll take no less"
*"Oh Jove, in pity teach me which to choose"
*"Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me?"
*"Where'er you walk"
*"Above measure is the pleasure"
* Johannes Somary, conducting the
English Chamber Orchestra, with Sheila Armstrongas Semele, Helen Wattsas Juno, and Robert Tearas Jupiter. Smaller roles are sung by Felicity Palmer, Mark Deller, and Justino Díaz. Vanguard Classics, 1973.
John Eliot Gardiner, conducting the English Baroque Soloistsand the Monteverdi Choir, with Norma Burrowesas Semele, Della Jonesas Juno, and Anthony Rolfe Johnsonas 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 Battleas Semele, the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horneas 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 Chanceas Athamas, and the bass Samuel Rameyas the god of sleep Somnus. Deutsche Grammophon436 782-2, recorded in London in 1990 and released in 1993. (This is the reference recording, according to ClassicsToday.) [http://www.classicstoday.com/review.asp?ReviewNum=7488]
* 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, Australiain December, 2002. ABC Classics 980047-0.
[http://mdz1.bib-bvb.de/~db/0001/bsb00016733/images/ Score] of "Semele" (ed.
Friedrich Chrysander, Leipzig 1860)
* [http://www.amadeusonline.net/almanacco.php?Start=0&Giorno=10&Mese=02&Anno=1744&Giornata=&Testo=&Parola=Stringa Amadeus Almanac, accessed 5 June 2008]
*citation|last=Dean|first=Winton|title=Handel's dramatic oratorios and masques|publisher=Oxford University Press|year=1959
* [http://info.royaloperahouse.org/Synopses/index.cfm?ccs=77&cs=657 Synopsis of Handel's "Semele"] from the
Royal Opera House
* [http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/congreve1.html Congreve's libretto for "Semele"] hosted by the
University of Oregon.
* [http://opera.stanford.edu/iu/libretti/semele.htm Congreve's libretto for "Semele"] hosted by
* [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9804E4DF1339F936A15751C0A963948260 A rare "Semele" by Handel] , review by Donal Henahan in
The New York Times, February 25, 1985
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