Handel scholar Ellen Harris’ biography focuses on the man behind the music. Who was Handel when he was not out in public promoting his compositions? Harris also provides some of the controversial background of “Semele,” an opera disguised as an oratorio. Italian opera fans were not happy when the English-language “Semele” premiered at Covent Garden and not at the Middlesex Opera’s theatre. Worse yet, it was and is one of Handel’s best works. An interesting read.
Can human desire go too far? Pittsburgh Opera closes its season with George Frideric Handel’s “Semele.” The opera, with a libretto by William Congreve, tells the story of Semele, a princess who sets her sights on marrying the god Jove (Jupiter) rather than a mere prince. Jove is married to the goddess Juno, who is tired of his many affairs. Disguising herself as Ino, Semele’s sister, she tricks Semele into asking Jove to appear to her in human form. Semele believes this will make her immortal, but instead she will be consumed by flames and die.
Handel’s gorgeous work is full of many showcase arias including “O sleep, why dost thou leave me,” “Myself I shall adore,” and “Where’er you walk.” The baroque masterpiece is updated to the 1920s, and its art deco scenery and costumes provide a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The opera once again features the Resident Artists who have been the singers for all productions this season. In addition, Chatham Baroque, Pittsburgh’s acclaimed early music ensemble, joins the musicians in the orchestra.
Explore more about “Semele” through the CD and book recommendations on this list.
Early music specialist Hogwood presents a thorough portrait of the composer. Hogwood’s afterword in this revised edition (first edition published in 1984) discusses the interest in scholarship and performances of Handel’s works, particularly his Italian operas and dramatic oratorios.
Lang takes us on a chronological journey of Handel’s life and music. In the chapter covering the period when Handel composed “Semele,” 1742-1744, we learn not only about the controversy surrounding the presentation of the work as an oratorio, but also the moral outrage in response to the suggestive libretto and the passionate behavior of the title character. Revered as a composer of religious music, Handel’s own classification of this new work landed him in hot water with his dedicated audience.
Features an all-star cast with Kathleen Battle as Semele, Marilyn Horne as Juno and Ino, Sylvia McNair as Iris and Samuel Ramey as Cadmus and Somnus.
A recording in oratorio “format” featuring the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists and conductor John Eliot Gardiner.