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When in 1743 Georg Friedrich Händel chose Semele as the material for his next opera he picked a work that he himself had prevented from being a success some 30 years earlier. William Congreve had adapted
the text from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to an English libretto in 1707 with the aim of continuing in the tradition of Henry Purcell. But in 1711 Händel successfully established Italian opera in London and it was not until
1725 that audiences started demanding English operas again. In his search for new forms and new texts, Händel came across Congreve’s Semele. A baroque allegory, the work acts as a moral warning – “People,
do not aspire to more than you deserve!” – but Congreve’s wit turns the moralising parable into an amusing portrait of the morals of the Rococo period.
A royal wedding is about to take place: Princess Semele of Thebes is to marry Prince Athamas. However, Semele is already secretly in love with Jupiter and has no interest whatsoever in this marriage. Heeding her appeal for help, Jupiter abducts her from the altar and takes her to a heavenly palace. But as a mortal, Semele is unhappy among the gods. Jupiter’s wife Juno wants to dispose of her rival. The father of the gods, realising that his wife is jealous, has the lovers’ palace guarded by dragons. But Juno is just as resourceful and skilled at changing her appearance as Jupiter is: she uses Somnus’s wand to send the dragons to sleep and, in the form of her sister Ino, provokes
Semele’s ambition, telling her that she can have the immortality she craves if Jupiter shows himself to her in his true form. Semele is taken in and refuses Jupiter’s advances until he swears to grant her every wish. But her wish
kills her: faced by Jupiter’s true appearance as a god Semele burns to a cinder. In her ashes Jupiter finds their unborn child and the world is given a new god: Bacchus.
Semele was originally intended solely for concert performance as an oratorio. Händel consequently imbued the music with imagery that would normally be represented visually on the opera stage. The score is one of
his most densely packed: inspired by Congreve’s humorous language, Händel found new freedoms and intensity when portraying the events and describing the characters by combining the forms of oratorio with those of opera.