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28 March, 2020

I’m on a Handel High ! In praise of Semele !

Dear 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 bene (Rodelinda).  

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 ornamentation. 

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 Norma?). 

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?

Zurich Opera with C. Bartoli

Rosemary Joshua soprano classy.  C. Curnyn 2007

A very alternative and modern production from Long Beach Opera.

Phenomenal soprano antics.  ?who ?where Simone Kermes?

Boston Handel/Haydn society web site is very impressive and instructive.