One of the songs that I have been working on this year is “Endless Pleasure, Endless Love” from Handel’s opera Semele. It is an English opera, from the Baroque period first performed in Covent Garden in 1743. George Frideric Handel turned to Greek mythology for this opera using a libretto written by William Congreve, who was the author of the famous phrase “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast”
It was first presented as an oratorio (in concert form rather than fully staged). The audience was confused, more used to sacred works by Handel the nature of Semele’s story was too much for them.
The main cast roles are:
Semele – Soprano
Jupiter/Apollo – Tenor
Athamas (Prince of Boeotia) – Contralto
Iris – Soprano
Cadmus/High Priest/Somnus – Bass
Juno/Ino (wife of Jupiter/sister of Semele)– mezzo soprano
Somnus – Bass
Semele, the daughter of the King of Thebes, is to marry Prince Athamus. Her family have travelled to the Temple of Juno to solemnise the marriage. Semele has been delaying the ceremony because she is secretly in love with Jupiter. She pleads with Jupiter for his help and his thunder interrupts the ceremony extinguishing the sacred flames on the altar of Juno (his wife). The Priests advice everyone to leave but Athamus and Semele’s sister Ino remain. Ino reveals to Athamus that she loves him who is astonished at the revelation. Cadmus interrupts them with the news that Semele has been abducted by a giant eagle, the priests identify this purple winged eagle as Jupiter and Semele is heard to announce that “Endless Pleasure, Endless Love, Semele enjoys above“.
Juno, is angry at her husband Jupiter’s adultery and orders her messenger Iris to discover where Jupiter and Semele are. Juno reports that they are in a dragon-guarded palace. Juno swears to destroy her rival, she finds Somus the God of sleep to obtain his help. Waking in her bedroom Semele awaits the return of Jupiter, he appears and reassures her of his love. She tells him she is uneasy when she compares her mortality to his godliness, he is alarmed by her ambition. Rather than honestly tell her that she can never attain immortality he decides to divert her. He brings her sister Ino from Earth to her for company they both wonder at the beauty of the heavens.
Juno and Iris arrive in Somus’ cave, Juno offers him his favourite nymph ‘Pasithea’ if he agrees to help her, he is keen to help and is even prepared to lend her his magic, sleep-inducing wand, which Juno will need to quieten the dragon guard. Juno disguises herself as Semele’s sister Ino she gives her ‘sister’ a magic mirror which causes Semele to fall in love with her own image ‘Myself I shall adore’. Juno then advises Semele how to obtain the immortality she desires. Jupiter must be tricked into making love to her in his true god-like form rather than his mortal form. Jupiter returns inflamed with desire, Semele rejects him ‘I am ever granting, you always complain’ until he swears to give her what she wants’ No, no I’ll take no less’. She asks him to appear in his godly splendour he is horrified and warns her of the danger she is in. She refuses to listen and he laments his part in her inevitable destruction. Juno gloats of her triumph, Semele realises too late the consequences of her request; as she approaches Jupiter his flames burn her and she dies.