Colleagues (it’s long, so get a coffee or press delete!),
Semele by George Friderich
Handel – novel opera of great genius, unfairly overlooked.
This it to praise the joys of
Handel’s magnificent masterpiece of 1744 and to recommend the numerous
recordings and YouTube versions available to readers.
Handel changed the face of
opera, concert and choral music in a long career from Germany to Rome and then
to London where he was virtually adopted by the English and even became a
naturalised citizen. Handel was born in the same year as JS Bach,
Domenico Scarlatti and John Gay, 1685.
Handel wrote 40 operas in 30
years, most of which disappeared into obscurity until the 1950s when
enthusiasts in England and America became interested to re-create these works
using original instruments and the vocal devices and techniques of the baroque
period (excluding castrati!).
Apart from some recent praise,
unkind things have sometimes been written on this list like: ‘all his music
sounds the same: they just change the title’. However, closer listening
reveals a mature genius in melodic invention, dramatic flow and orchestral
originality. This is certainly the case with Semele. Most Handel
operas have one aria which became a memorable showpiece. Ombra mai fu
(‘Handel’s largo’ from Serse); Torami a vagheggiar (Alcina); Let the bright
Seraphim (Samson); Care selve (Atalanta); V’adoro, pullilae (Julius Caesar);
Where shall I fly? (Hercules); Lascia, ch’io pianga (Rinaldo); Dove sei, amato
Apparently some in London were
sick and tired of Italian operas. Samuel Johnson even defined opera in
his dictionary in 1755 as ‘an exotic and irrational entertainment’.
‘Exotic’ in those days meant foreign. So Handel moved with the times and
wrote Semele to an English libretto penned from the Ovid’s Metamorphoses about
the illicit liaison between Jupiter and Semele to the consternation of his wife
Juno and with the conniving of Semele’s sister Ino. The last lines of the
opera allude to the birth of Bacchus, son of Semele and Jupiter and bringer of
mirth, joy and libido.
However, when in early 1744 the
libretto was presented to Covent Garden as a raunchy piece involving sex out of
marriage, betrayal, death on stage, etc, it was determined that it could not be
staged during Lent, a season of solemn self deprivation. Brilliant
tactician as he was, Handel told the management and his publisher that Semele
was an opera “in the manner of an Oratorio”. Hence it was performed from
the concert platform in English to the delight of the public. London did
not want to miss out again on the first performance as they had with Messiah
which opened in Dublin after London found it inappropriate for a church.
Like Messiah, Semele was reportedly written in about a month, a phenomenal
feat, especially for someone who had a recent heart attack.
Messiah has become one of the
most popular choral pieces of all time (see excellent videos from Trinity
Church Wall Street). It is my view that Semele should have been as
popular, such are its enormous musical, vocal and dramatic virtues.
Semele’s time may have finally arrived as a few serious performances have been
given and mainstream opera companies are turning their attention to
Handel. YouTube provides some impressive examples (see below for some
recommended links including Cecilia Bartoli in Zurich).
Some say Semele is Handel’s
best opera. I heard Charles Mackerras spoke highly of the work and
conducted Joan Carden in the title role in Australia. Just the second act
has three of the most famous arias ever written … ‘Iris Hence Away’ for the
mezzo-soprano; ‘Sleep, why do’est thou leave me’ for the soprano and ‘Where
‘ere you walk’ for the tenor. Do many (or any?) other operas have three
immortal arias in just one act? All singing students should learn some
Handel … and often one of the above - but only when they are quite advanced in
their training since these are all major exercises in breathing, coloratura and
The soprano sings two
phenomenal pieces each of which dwarfs even the Queen of Night’s arias by
Mozart. ‘Myself I shall adore, should I persist in gazing’; ‘No, no, I'll
take no less …’. Semele could become my favourite opera (equal with
Notes and hyperbolae by Andrew
Byrne in Sydney .. (quivering at the prospect of visiting New York in 3
weeks despite Coronavirus threat). Will the Met stay open, I wonder?