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Semele - An opera in three acts by Handel

Where E're You Walk perhaps its most memorable aria

The storyline is taken from ancient Greco Roman mythology and concerns the mortal princess Semele and her adulterous affair with Jupiter the King of the Gods, appearing in human form as a handsome young Adonis, but being divine able to transform into a multitude of guises.

Although it is her sister Ino who is secretly in love with the prospective groom, preparations are being made for the marriage of Princess Semele to Prince Athamas to fulfil the wishes of her father. However Semele is resisting all attempts at persuasion because she is in love with Jupiter, and calls on him to intervene. The ceremony is duly interrupted by the God’s thunderbolts striking fear and alarm into the hearts of all present who abandon the ceremony and flee the temple. Witnesses later report Semele being carried off to the mountains by an Eagle subsequently identified as Jupiter himself. It transpires Jupiter has taken Semele as his mistress much to the disappointment of his wife the Goddess Juno who sets about immediately to find and deal with her rival. Assisted by Iris her confidant Juno discovers Semele in Jupiter’s mountain palace and inveigles her way into her confidence, in due course persuading the Princess by flattery that her great beauty is worthy of the status of a Goddess. Of course this is a powerful appeal to Semele’s vanity but also a trick to bring about her downfall. Juno knows that Jupiter’s divine powers would be harmful to Semele but nevertheless suggests that he is able to grant this wish.

Besotted by her charms Jupiter rashly makes an oath promising to grant Semele anything she desires but when it becomes clear she wants to become a Goddess he is not at all enthusiastic. He is reluctant to lose his treasured mistress and knows that appearing in his godlike form to grant her wish will prove fatal to a mere mortal. However after much deliberation Jupiter decides he cannot break his promise and by the time Semele has persuaded him to agree an action plan she is already pregnant with his child. Oh dear! As we have long been led to suspect no good is going to come from pursuing this vainglorious dream and sure enough when he appears in divine form in a tremendous thunder and lightning storm, Semele is struck down by his thunderbolts and as she lies dying laments and regrets her foolishness. In the aftermath of Semele’s tragic death however, there is a more cheerful footnote, in that Jupiter’s son Bacchus the God of wine and pleasure arises from Semele’s ashes and sister Ino who has been in love with Athamas all along gets her man, Bacchus ensuring a long and happy life together.

George Frederick Handel was born in Halle Germany in 1685, died in London in1759 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. Most of his work had religious themes but two of his few secular compositions were his operas Hercules and Semele. The libretto used for Semele was adapted from a work by William Congreve previously written for an opera of the same name by John Eccles in 1705. The text for perhaps one of the opera’s most memorable arias “Where E’re You Walk” is an extract taken from a poem written by Alexander Pope in 1709, “The Pastorals - Summer”.

William Congreve was a playwright born in Bardsey Yorkshire in 1670, his family moved to London in 1672 then to Youghal in Ireland where his father served in the Irish army. He was educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College Dublin before studying law at Middle Temple in London. However preferring literature and drama he turned his back on a career in the legal profession to find his fortune in the arts supported by friends Jonathan Swift and John Dryden. He died in 1729 and is buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Alexander Pope 1688 - 1744 was born in London and died in Twickenham where he is buried in St Mary’s Church. Although taught by an aunt before attending Twyford School, Pope’s early education suffered quite substantially from anti-catholic sentiments prevalent during his lifetime, when Catholic schools were illegal in some areas. Consequently therefore it is quite likely that self education formed the basis of his development and literary career, made possible by his keen interest in classical literature and his appetite for reading.

Palfreyman March 2018