Spotlight On: SEMELE

At Seattle Opera February 21-March 7, 2015

Music by
George Frideric Handel
Libretto by
William Congreve and Alexander Pope

First Performed London, 1744| In English with English Captions | Marion Oliver McCaw Hall

Long Story Short:
Beautiful woman provoked to suicidal arrogance by jealous goddess.

Who’s Who?
Semele, the lovely princess of Thebes, likes it when her desires are fulfilled.

Jupiter, king of the gods, is in love with Semele.

Juno, goddess of marriage, is his jealous wife.

Athamas, prince of Bœotia, is engaged to Semele.

Ino, Semele’s sister, loves Athamas.

Cadmus, King of Thebes, is father to Ino and Semele.

Iris, goddess of the rainbow, does Juno’s bidding.

Somnus, god of sleep, is fond of a lovely nymph, Pasithea.

Apollo, god of prophecy, knows how all things turn out...

Where and When?
The world of Greek myth.

What’s Going On?

Set Design for Semele by Erhard Rom

It’s the wedding-day of Semele and Athamas, and, even though the great goddess Juno indicates her approval of the marriage, all is not well. Semele doesn’t really love her fiancé, she loves Jupiter (and Semele’s sister Ino is in love with Athamas). Jupiter interrupts the wedding with his thunderbolts and then, in the form of an eagle, bears Semele away to a realm of “Endless pleasure, endless love.”

Kathleen Battle sings “Endless pleasure, endless love” from Semele

Set Design for Semele by Erhard Rom

The jealous Juno, assisted by Iris, sets out to destroy her rival.

Marilyn Horne sings “Hence, Iris, away” from Semele

Meanwhile, Semele asks Jupiter: can a mortal really love a god? To distract her attention from this thorny problem, Jupiter brings Ino up from earth to keep Semele company.

Juno offers Somnus, the god of sleep, the favors of a lovely nymph—in exchange for his magic, wand, which she uses to enchant Jupiter and the dragons that guard Semele’s palace. Then, Juno suggests to Semele that she will become immortal if Jupiter makes love to her in his divine form, instead of the mortal disguise he customarily uses.

Costume Design for Jupiter by Vita Tzykun

Semele makes Jupiter swear he’ll give her whatever she desires, then demands that he appear in all his godly splendour. The god is horrified and warns her his true appearance would harm her, but Semele will not listen. Jupiter then reveals himself in his divine form, and the very sight of the god burns Semele to ashes. Ino weds Athamas, and Apollo announces that Jupiter’s union with Semele has created Bacchus, the god of wine.

Finale to Semele

About the Composer
George Frideric Handel, a German who wrote Italian operas, has long been revered as England’s greatest composer. (Go back and read that sentence again, until it makes sense.) Handel’s remarkable career took him back and forth across Europe and made him a prime early example of the cosmopolitan, international composer. During his life he was the best-known composer in all of Europe. Although many of his works were neglected in the century following his death, in the past fifty years there has been a tremendous revival of interest in Handel. Today many people classify him among the top composers in the history of music.

Coincidentally, two of these top composers, Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, were both born in early 1685, and within a few miles of each other. They never met and pursued remarkably different paths. Bach stayed in one small town most of his life, raised an enormous family, and poured out gallons of Lutheran church music; Handel, on the other hand, after traveling widely, finally settled in a booming metropolis, wrote more than 40 operas (Bach never wrote any), and more or less invented the art form known as oratorio. Although he was an astute businessman, Handel was deficient in social graces: an overweight, foul-mouthed bully, a workaholic, and quite possibly suffering from mental illness, he never married and never seems to have developed any warm, loving relationships. Together Bach and Handel are two of the three pillars (the third is Antonio Vivaldi) of the musical movement known as the Baroque.

Costume Design for Pasithea by Vita Tzykun

In the Baroque period musicians were among the ranks of servants who attended upon nobility; being a musician carried about the same prestige as being a butler. In fact, Handel’s father was a barber who hoped that his son would leave the family’s middle-class origins behind and become a lawyer. But George was made for music and defied his father by dropping out of law school and taking a job playing second fiddle in the orchestra at the Hamburg Opera house. When the manager of the theater skipped town to escape his creditors, Handel and his best friend found themselves in charge. But before long, Handel was seduced away to Italy, where he learned everything there was to know about Italian opera. At the age of 25 Handel returned to Germany to take a permanent job as Kapellmeister, or master of all musical activities, at the court of the Elector of Hanover. But the first thing Handel did in his new job was to take a sabbatical and go to England for a year.

Handel’s visit to England was so successful that when it was over he asked the Elector of Hanover if he could return there. The Elector fired Handel, who got a job almost immediately in the service of England’s Queen Anne. Anne was the last Stuart ruler of England, and when she died with no heir, a scavenger hunt across Europe turned up none other than the Elector of Hanover as the closest Protestant relative of the Stuarts. Thus Handel’s old boss became King George I of England. King George was happy to have Handel working for him once more, and Handel lived out the rest of his life in Hanoverian England. In addition to writing chamber music and pieces (such as the well-known Water Music and Royal Fireworks Music) for political occasions, Handel wrote a vast number of operas in the Italian form known as opera seria, which was hugely popular in London for a decade or so. Handel’s best-known opera serias are Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Rodelinda, Ariodante, and Alcina. In the late 1730s, however, opera seria rapidly fell from favor. Handel adapted quickly; he wrote operas which played with the strict conventions of opera seria, such as his comedy Xerxes, and pioneered the art form known as the oratorio, an unstaged musical drama usually based on a Bible story. Handel’s greatest oratorio, and indeed his most famous composition, is the Christmastime favorite, Messiah.

Set Design for Semele by Erhard Rom

Working Conditions in Handel’s Theater
Francesca Cuzzoni, the soprano who played the leading lady in most of the Italian operas Handel wrote for London, was a diva of the first rank. When she refused to sing an aria Handel had written for her—she said it didn’t show off her marvelous voice nearly enough—the frustrated composer picked her up and threatened to throw her out a second-story window, bellowing “Yes, I know you are a she-devil, madama, but I will have you know zat I am Beelzebub, ze Prince of Devils!” They got along great after that; Handel even apologized for attempting to defenestrate Cuzzoni by writing her character three more arias.

An Opera Disguised as an Oratorio
Handel wrote Semele in 1744, long after he had shifted his focus from writing opera serias in Italian to writing oratorios in English. Indeed, this great work is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; although Handel tried (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to present it as an oratorio, Semele truly is an opera—one so revolutionary for its day, it didn’t catch on until the late twentieth century. Semele profits from what Handel had learned about writing both opera serias and oratorios, but transcends any attempt to fit it neatly into a genre.

Set Design for Semele by Erhard Rom

Opera seria, famously described by Dr. Samuel Johnson as “an exotick and irrational entertainment,” enjoyed a brief vogue in eighteenth-century London, then a swelling boomtown as the British Empire expanded over the entire globe. The British public found Italian operas fascinating: tales of uncontrollable passion, lust, greed, jealousy, hatred, revenge, torture, and true love conquering all, often loosely adapted from pagan mythology, ancient history, or fantastical medieval romances. In every opera seria there’s a tangle of characters, each one in love with the wrong person—and always a happy ending, usually courtesy of a deus ex machina. The operas were set in colorful locales, brought to vivid theatrical life by crafty stage technicians, and organized musically to show off the flamboyant personalities and vocal technique of star Italian singers. Since the seven or so singers performing in each opera were directly competing for the audience’s love, opera serias are almost all arias. Singers can’t cooperate and perform ensembles when they’re constantly trying to upstage and sabotage each other’s performances.

The opera seria bubble couldn’t last. Handel created the oratorio form almost as an antidote to the excesses of opera seria: whereas opera serias were about soloists, oratorios were about the chorus. Whereas opera seria plots concern pagans, tyrants, and delicious sin, oratorios often tell stories of good Jewish or Christian heroes or martyrs: Israel in Egypt, Susannah, Judas Maccabeus, Theodora, and Messiah. And whereas opera seria was sung in incomprehensible (to London audiences) Italian, oratorios were sung in good old English!

In Semele, Handel managed to have his cake and eat it too. Musically, this work encompasses the best of both worlds: the soloists get to strutt their stuff in the outrageous da capo arias of opera seria, huge musical structures that give each singer the opportunity to express a pair of contrasting emotions with great vocal panache. But Semele also features several ensembles and a much bigger chorus than you’d find in an opera seria. They sing great music and, by representing the common mass of humanity, make the stories of the noble and divine principal characters that much more meaningful.

Costume Design for Iris by Vita Tzykun

The oratorio audience didn’t take to Semele, probably because it violated their preconceptions about what an oratorio was supposed to be. No, none of these characters are role models; Semele is vain and ambitious, Juno bossy and manipulative; Jupiter and Athamas are blinded by lust, and Somnus is simply ridiculous. But even though Handel at some level is laughing at his characters, his music certainly takes seriously their desires, their fears, and all their humanity. What’s more, it is supremely theatrical music, crying out for dramatization. It’s little wonder that Semele eventually found life onstage at the great opera houses of the world.

An unidentified singer sings “O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me” from Semele

The Da Capo Aria
The principal musical form in opera seria is known as the da capo aria, which is Italian for “from the head” or “from the top.” In these pieces, once you’ve sung all the music of each aria you start again, taking it “from the top.” Musicologists use the symbol ABA’ for such structures; you sing the A section, usually one sentence of poetry, repeating the words many times and showing off your voice with dazzling melismas (passages where the singer hits dozens, sometimes hundreds, of notes for a single word). The B section follows—a contrasting sentence, set musically with a contrasting mood: minor instead of major, quiet instead of loud, that kind of thing. But when you reach the end of the B section, you take it “from the top” and repeat the A section, this time embellishing the original melody. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a few trills here and there, but every now and then we hear a big vocal fantasia on the original melody. Da capo arias are fiendishly difficult and exhausting, from the singer’s point of view, and musically glorious, from the audience’s point of view (when performed properly).

But da capo arias cause an odd wrinkle in the libretti of opera serias (which were usually non-stop da capo arias): the story has to unfold in such a way that every five minutes some new plot twist causes a character such intense emotion that he or she has to sing a huge aria about it. The resulting plots can be difficult to follow, or downright implausible. But at a good performance, the singing will make it all worthwhile.

Costume Design for Juno by Vita Tzykun

Voice Types in Early Opera
Handel’s operas sound different than many later operas. To a certain extent that’s because of his orchestra—smaller than orchestras for popular nineteenth-century operas and prominently featuring the harpsichord, which fell from favor once pianos were developed, toward the end of the eighteenth century. (The fact that Handel couldn’t use a piano to compose also affects the sound of his music.)

But above all, it’s the voices that are different. When Handel wrote opera serias, the star of the show was always a castrato—a male singer who had been castrated before puberty to preserve the short vocal cords and the high, piping vocal range of a boy. (Fear not, this tradition is a thing of the past; the last castrato died in 1922.) Handel also wrote roles for countertenors, intact male performers who sing in the higher register using a carefully trained falsetto voice. A countertenor’s vocal cords are full length, but he has learned to sing without vibrating the entire cord. (String players who understand harmonics know how this works.) In Semele, a countertenor sings the role of Athamas, the prince tangled in the love triangle of Act One.

The Semele Myth and Handel’s Libretto
Handel’s audience of well-to-do Londoners, during the reigns of George I and II, was well acquainted with the classics. Most had studied Greek and Latin at school and were as familiar with ancient mythology and history as we are with popular television shows and movies. They encountered these old stories regularly—in art, poetry, and music—and were accustomed to seeing new takes on them.

Set Design for Semele by Erhard Rom

The myth of Semele, beautifully told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is one of Greek mythology’s greatest tales of hubris, the ultimate crime in that cosmos. (Hubris happens when a mortal aspires to divinity. In Catholicism, hubris became known as pride, and was considered the deadliest of the seven deadly sins.) Being mortal, Semele is incapable of experiencing the full divinity of her lover Jupiter; when he reveals himself in all his glory, she perishes at once. But she is dissatisfied with mortality, and nothing will dissuade her from attempting to transcend it; this moth is determined to burn herself upon that flame. Since opera always ended happily in the eighteenth century, Handel’s opera concludes with the deus ex machina appearance of Apollo, who brings forth Bacchus, child of Semele and Jupiter and the happy outcome of her tragic fall.

From the point of view of literature, Handel’s Semele libretto has a distinguished pedigree. William Congreve, author of the Restoration comedy The Way of the World, originally wrote the libretto for another composer, several decades before Handel. The version Handel set also incorporates poetry by Alexander Pope, one of the most important writers of the day. Pope had translated the Illiad and the Odyssey, and, like the language of his famous mock-epic The Rape of the Lock, the poetry of the Semele libretto delights in alluding to the world of those Homeric epics: “O’er Scythian hills to the Mæotian lake / A speedy flight we’ll take!”

Mark Padmore sings “Where’er You Walk” from Semele. The words to this famous aria were written by Alexander Pope.
If you’re excited about hearing an opera in English, keep in mind that opera characters in the eighteenth century—particularly gods and aristocrats—do not talk like regular people. Read, for example, the dazzling trio of couplets and quatrain Iris uses to warn Juno of the defenses Jupiter has erected around Semele’s hidden bower of love:

Hear, mighty Queen, while I recount
What Obstacles you must surmount.
With Adamant the gates are barr’d,
whose Entrance two fierce Dragons guard.
At each Approach they lash their forky Stings,
And clap their brazen Wings:
And as their scaly Horrors rise,
They all at once disclose
A thousand fiery Eyes
Which never know Repose.
What vivid musical description of Jupiter’s dragons in these lines! Handel loved poetry and wrote better music when motivated by better verse, in Italian, English, and Latin. The only language he didn’t much use for music was his mother tongue, German.

Recommended Recordings
Nelson: DG, 1993 (Battle, Horne, Aller, Ramey)

Curnyn: Chandos Chaconne, 2008 (Joshua, Summers, Croft, Sherratt)

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