About this work

Semele opened the 1744 oratorio season at Covent Garden. Composed during the summer of 1743 after the huge success of Samson, it is altogether a different kind of work than his other oratorios. It has a secular subject, and although performed as an oratorio comes very close to being an English opera. The many accompanied recitatives and the exclusive use of the da capo aria form give it traits from the Italian opera. The libretto is by one of England's finest dramatists of all time, William Congreve. The character of the story and the use of the language is entirely English, and the music's rhythmic and cadential feel is indebted to Handel's new language. Handel also attempts to combine in Semele elements of the English lyric stage, introducing traits from the semi-opera and masque.

William Congreve wrote Semele in 1707 as a libretto, intending it to be set by John Eccles, then a popular composer of the stage. Indeed a score for the work resides in the British museum. Newburgh Hamilton adapted the play for Handel's use, skillfully adding dramatic opportunities for the composer. The libretto was very congenial to Handel, who liked the sources from Ovid, Greek myth, and Euripides. However, the secular story, with its themes of carnal love, and the operatic music which is filled with lyric intensity, completely shocked the English. The music and the text both reflect the passion of the characters, and appeal to the sensual delight of the audience. When Semele premiered in Covent Garden in February 1744, it was a complete failure. Handel attempted to produce it only one more time before completely giving up on the work. The public thought of Semele as an opera, which it really is.