A forbidden tryst between god and mortal attracts the attention of Juno, who sets about to teach her unfaithful husband, Jupiter, and human lover, Semele, a lesson. The mortal princess Semele is unknowingly “out of her league” as she is taken in by Juno’s cunning and attempts to command her lover Jupiter to reveal himself in his godly form, despite his desperate attempts to bring the princess to her senses. Telling the tale of a short and fiery affair, Handel’s Semele will transport audiences to the world of Greek mythology and the larger-than-life personas of its central figures.
Semele opened on February 10, 1744 in London at the Covent Garden Theatre. Given that the production was staged as part of a yearly Lenten concert series, the lack of uplifting, Biblical subject matter came as quite a shock to a number of attendees. Due to its provocative subject matter, Handel’s work received only four performances at this time, although eight months later would see two presentations of a revised version, which omitted some dialogue containing sexual innuendos. The controversial work was forgotten for nearly two centuries until performances of the original score during 1925 and 1954 in England sparked a permanent revival. The 2015-16 season marks the first Opera Omaha production of Semele, although frequent opera-goers will recognize two additional productions of Handel’s operas in the company history: Agrippina (2013-14) and Partenope (1988-89).
Name that Tune
Even though we often refer to Handel’s Semele as an opera, the piece should be more properly classified as a “musical drama.” This is because the work fuses elements of both opera and oratorio, with the traditions of classical theatre, making it difficult to fit the entire composition into the neat box of a single genre. We may ask ourselves, “What was Handel thinking?” but it is clear that the composer himself intended for this ambiguity when he said that the dramatic material should be performed “in the manner of an oratorio.” It might be best to consider Semele as a sort of musical chimera, being built from elements of very different things. Therefore when listening to the piece, be on the lookout for both operatic and oratorio elements including: the spectacular arias and dramatic plot characteristic of opera and use of the English language and large choral moments drawn from oratorio.
A Whole New World
While the story of Handel’s opera presents a world of seemingly endless twists, turns, and divine machinations, the full scope of Greek mythology is much, much more convoluted. The first stop in coming to understand this complicated world of lore is to examine the Theogony, or genealogy, of the Greek gods. The famous Olympian pantheon with which we are familiar can roughly be regarded as the third generation of gods, stemming from the Titans and more primordial deities, such as Nyx (night), Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (sky). In order to secure their place in the hierarchies of divine power, a member of each generation of gods committed a form of divine patricide: Kronos castrated Uranus at the request of his mother, and Zeus led his siblings into battle against the Titans, finally imprisoning them. Although the Olympians did produce their own children, it is with this generation that the cycle of patricide was effectively ended. For this reason the Olympian offspring are often considered to be minor-gods and their parents the major.