Explore Handel's Semele in our archive.

Part I

Cadmus, Semele’s father, asks for the goddess Juno’s blessing on a marriage between his daughter Semele and Athamas. Semele, distressed, begs her father to delay the wedding. Privately she implores her lover Jove, king of the gods (and Juno’s husband) to intervene.

Thunder is heard, and suddenly the sacred fire on Juno’s altar is extinguished. The people flee, leaving Semele’s sister Ino alone with Athamas. But when Ino tries to comfort the grieving Athamas, confessing her own secret love for him, he is taken aback.

Breaking the tension, Cadmus returns with news: Jove, in the guise of a giant eagle, has carried Semele off. Her voice is heard distantly celebrating her sudden change of fortunes, and all join in the chorus of bliss.

In a remote landscape Juno greets the messenger god Iris, impatient for news of a potential new rival. Her suspicions are realised when Iris tells her that Jove has installed his new lover Semele in a mountaintop palace. Revenge will be difficult, she warns, as it is guarded by dragons that never sleep. But Juno’s rage is unrelenting and she begins to scheme. Who better to help than Somnus, god of sleep himself? They set off to demand his help.

Part II

Semele awakes from a passionate dream to find herself alone in her new palace. Jove enters, in the form of a man, and attempts to reassure her insecurity (he assures her that he is faithful) and distract her from her growing discontent that he has not yet made her immortal. He summons Ino, and transforms the surroundings into a paradise for them to enjoy.

Part III

Juno bursts into Somnus’ cave, interrupting the god’s deep sleep to demand his help. Finally he agrees, promising to charm the dragons to sleep and transform Juno herself – giving her the appearance of Semele’s sister Ino.

Quick to put her magical disguise to work, Juno joins Semele in her palace. Flattering her and praising her beauty, she persuades Semele to ask Jove to show himself to her in all his divine glory, promising the trusting girl that this will make her a goddess.

Inflamed with desire, Jove returns to Semele. But when she (primed by Juno) rejects him, he immediately swears a vow, promising to give her whatever she wants. When she names her wish it is too late to take back his promise. He approaches her in all his thunderbolts and fire, and Semele is instantly consumed by flames.

Ino returns to Thebes with the news of Semele’s death. Athamas comforts her; her kindness has unexpectedly transformed his feelings to love. Jove appears, announcing that Semele’s unborn child has been saved and will become a god – Bacchus – born to bring pleasure to the earth. Semele is quickly forgotten, and all sing a chorus of rejoicing.

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