Music by George Frideric Handel
Libretto by William Congreve after Ovid
First performed: 1744
In the temple of Juno, Cadmus, King of Thebes, is preparing for the marriage of his daughter Semele to Athamas, Prince of Boeotia. However, the bride is hesitant for she is secretly in love with Jupiter. She calls on the god to help her in her predicament.
Semele’s sister, Ino, is also distressed by the impending marriage but for different reasons: she herself is in love with Athamas. Jupiter has heard Semele’s plea: his thunderbolts make it clear that in spite of Juno’s approval, he violently opposes Semele’s marriage. All flee in terror.
Ino attempts to comfort Athamas, but in so doing she reveals her love for him. Cadmus interrupts their confusion and describes the extraordinary event he has just witnessed: as they fled the temple Semele was suddenly carried off by an eagle. Cadmus’s courtiers bring the happy news that it was in fact Jupiter who abducted the young girl. As the act ends, Semele is seen enjoying her role as the god’s new mistress.
Iris reports to Juno the whereabouts of Semele’s newly built, dragon-guarded palace. Enraged, Juno swears to destroy her rival; but first she decides to set out and find Somnus, the god of sleep, in order to enlist his help in achieving her revenge.
Waking in her bedroom, Semele languidly awaits the return of her lover. Jupiter appears and reassures her of his love. Semele tells him that she is uneasy when she compares her mortality to his godliness, causing Jupiter to be alarmed by her ambition.
Rather than telling her that she can never attain immortality, he decides to divert her. His plans include bringing her sister Ino from Earth. Semele’s fears are calmed for the moment and when Ino appears the two sisters extol the music of the spheres.
Somnus is sleeping peacefully in his cave when Juno and Iris arrive. It is only when Juno speaks the name of the nymph Pasithea that Somnus awakes. In exchange for the nymph, Somnus agrees to help Juno. He is even prepared to lend her his magic, sleep-inducing wand, which she will need to elude the dragons that guard Semele’s palace.
Juno, now disguised as Ino, appears to Semele. She first presents her ‘sister’ with a magic mirror which causes Semele instantly to fall in love with her own image. Juno then craftily advises the young woman how to obtain the immortality she desires: Jupiter must be tricked into making love to her in his true god-like form, rather than in his mortal disguise. Semele is delighted and thanks her profusely.
Jupiter returns, enflamed with desire. Semele rejects him until he swears to give her whatever she wants. Continuing to follow Juno’s advice, she asks him to appear in all his godly splendour. The god is horrified and desperately warns her of the mortal danger she is in. Semele refuses to accept anything less than the fulfilment of her wish and leaves Jupiter to lament his part in her inevitable destruction.
Juno gloats over her triumph, while Semele realizes too late the consequences of her ambition. As she approaches the godhead, the flames of Jupiter’s power burn her and she dies.
The people lament Semele’s death. Ino describes a dream in which Hermes revealed Jupiter’s wish for her and Athamas to wed. Jupiter himself now appears and announces that his union with Semele will result in the birth of Bacchus, the god of wine. The people are left to celebrate this unexpected piece of good news.
Back to full list
Already a member?
Sign in now to access the members only area
Not a member?
Join now to receive priority booking, invitations to dress rehearsals and members-only events and much more.