Opera Scotland

Semele

Music
George Frideric Handel (born Halle, 23 February 1685; died London, 14 April 1759)

Text
Anonymous adaptation of text (1705-6) by Willam Congreve (1670-1729) set by John Eccles.

Source
Classical mythology.

Premieres
First performance: London (Covent Garden), 10 February 1744.
First performance in Scotland: To be confirmed.
Scottish Opera premiere: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 19 February 2005.

Background
Congreve was arguably the greatest of the dramatists of the restoration period, producing four hugely successful comedies and one tragedy between 1693 and 1700, including The Double Dealer and The Way of the World. John Eccles (c1668-1735) was appointed Master of the King’s Musick in 1700 and set Congreve’s poem The Judgment of Paris the following year. Their collaboration on Semele produced a delightful comic opera, almost worthy of Purcell. It was shelved at the time, probably because of the sudden craze for Italian opera, and was not produced until 1972. Handel’s version, produced in Lent in the manner of an oratorio, was controversial several decades after the restoration period, but is one of the greatest comic operas produced up to that time, and possibly since. The humour is sly, never quite bawdy, and the music is almost entirely glorious.

Characters
Cadmus, King of Thebes (bass)
Semele, daughter of Cadmus (soprano)
Ino, her sister (contralto)
Athamas, prince of Boeotia (alto)
Jupiter (tenor)
Juno, his wife (contralto)
Iris, Juno’s companion (soprano)
Somnus (bass)
Apollo (tenor)

Plot Summary
Semele is to marry Athamas, and not pleased, because she is enjoying an affair with Jupiter. Ino is also unhappy because she does love Athamas. Thunder and the extinction of Juno’s sacred flame show Jupiter’s displeasure, and the ceremony is abandoned. An eagle swoops and carries Semele off to resume her enjoyment of Jupiter’s favours. Juno is furious and wishes to destroy Semele. Jupiter distracts his mistress from her dreams of immortality by bringing her sister to keep her company. Juno persuades Somnus to send Ino into a deep sleep so that Juno may impersonate her. Disguised as Semele’s sister, it is easy for Juno to persuade her that she should not be satisfied with Jupiter’s attentions in the form of a mortal, but that he should visit her in his own form, as Jove, the Mighty Thunderer. Jupiter is reluctant, since he realises Semele would not survive this overwhelming experience. However he at last agrees to her persuasion, and Semele is duly reduced to ashes. Ino is able to report that the gods decree she is to marry Athamas. Apollo then announces that Bacchus will arise from Semele’s remains, so all ends happily.

The Cast

Apollo
 
Athamas
 a Prince of Boeotia
Cadmus
 King of Thebes
Cupid
 
Ino
 sister of Semele
Iris
 Juno's attendant
Juno
 
Jupiter
 
Priest
 
Semele
 daughter of Cadmus
Somnus
 

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