Monday, 5 August 1996

Semele: An English Opera?

This is a draft script for a scripted interlude for a BBC Radio 3 Proms production of Semele, produced by Fiona Shelmerdine, BBC Radio 3, broadcast 5/8/96.

From 1742, when Handel returned to London from his famous production of Messiah in Dublin, through to the first performance of Semele in February 1744 something remarkable happened to the reputation of Handel. The composer whose single greatest musical commitment had been to the composing of Italian opera, and to the establishment of successful opera seria in London, the composer of over forty operas who had completely transformed English musical culture, suddenly found himself described as the scourge of opera. Less than a week after the first night of Samson, in February 1743 Horace Walpole was writing: “Handel has set up an Oratorio against the Operas, and succeeds”. Exactly one year later, with the production of Semele, the theme of the rivalry with opera was still current. One of Handel’s most devoted musical followers, Mrs Delany wrote to her sister:

“Semele is charming; the more I hear it the better I like it, and as I am a subscriber I shall not fail one night ... They say Samson is to be next Friday, for Semele has a strong party against it, viz. the fine ladies, petit maĆ®tres, and ignoramus’s. All the opera people are enraged at Handel ...”

Both Walpole and Mrs Delany were referring to the same musico-political struggle.

By 1741 Handel had composed his last Italian opera - Deidama - and had, whether he was conscious of the finality of it or not, therefore sacrificed at last his practising dedication to the musical pre-eminence of opera seria. This sacrifice was almost certainly against his private conviction, but a complicated pattern of pressures dictated, gradually in the 1730s, and then more emphatically at the beginning of the next decade that his musical future lay in the composition of English oratorios not Italian operas.

From the beginning of Handel’s career in London there had always been an English lobby, championed, for instance, by Joseph Addison in the pages of The Spectator, which saw the singing of operas in England, in Italian, as absurd. By 1728, with the end of the first period of The Royal Academy of Music, what were seen as the excesses of Italian opera were being parodied in the most successful stage play of the eighteenth century - John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.  But in the 1730s the champions of English words found the perfect musical expression for their cause - not in the production of operas in English, but in the development of a new form - the English oratorio. Ironically it was Handel’s own music - an unauthorised but sympathetic production of Esther in 1732 - that was to signal the future of his career. The production was the talk of the town and soon other unauthorised versions were being announced in the press. Handel had to respond, and his own production of Esther was advertised for May 2nd, 1732. A satirical letter published in the same year captured the success of oratorio, and Handel’s prophetic involvement in the new fashion:

“I left the Italian Opera, the house was so thin, and cross’d over the way to the English one, which was so full I was forc’d to crowd in upon the Stage ... This alarm’d Handel, and out he brings an Oratorio, or Religious Farce, for the duce take me if I can make any other Construction on the Word, but he has made a very good Farce of it, and put near 4,000l. in his Pocket. This being a new Thing set the whole World a Madding; Han’t you be at the Oratorio, says one? Oh! If you don’t see the Oratorio you see nothing, says t’other; so away goes I to the Oratorio, where I saw indeed the finest Assembly of People I ever beheld in my Life, but, to my great Surprize found this Sacred Drama a mere Consort, no Scenary, Dress or Action, so necessary to a Drama ...”

Handel’s commitment to Italian opera was hardly, though, to end suddenly. He was to compose a further fourteen Italian operas, including the masterpieces Orlando and Ariodante. And the opera cause in England was not to end with Handel’s final opera some nine years later. In 1741, six months after Handel’s last opera and four months before his visit to Dublin there was news that a new opera venture, headed by Lord Middlesex, had been established: “Six extravagant young Gentlemen have subscrib’d

1000 £  apiece for the Support of an opera next winter”. It was against this new opera company that Walpole reported the rival success of Samson in 1743 and it was the “opera people” supporting this venture that Mrs Delany claimed were so outraged by Semele.

The coincidence of Handel’s visit to Ireland and the establishment of this new company worked in favour of Handel’s current reputation. The response of Alexander Pope, the most important representative of the literary establishment, is particularly interesting. In the first version of his great mock-epic poem The Dunciad, published in 1728, Pope had presented opera as the cultural harbinger of the reign of the Goddess Dulness:

“Already, Opera prepares the way,

The sure fore-runner of her gentle sway.”

These lines were written during the height of Handel’s supremacy as a composer of Italian operas, at a time indeed when opera was synonymous with Handel. Now, though, in 1741, as Handel had departed for Ireland, Pope was completing his vision of the reign of anti-art, composing the fourth book of The Dunciad.  And he had certainly not changed his views of Italian opera, which, with its “affected airs” and “effeminate sounds” confirms the foreboding promise of the earlier poem.  It appears personified as a “Harlot form” ready to silence the nine muses:

“When lo! a Harlot form soft sliding by,

With mincing step, small voice, and languid eye;

Foreign her air, her robe’s discordant pride

In patch-work flutt’ring, and her head aside.

By singing Peers up-held on either hand,

She tripp’d and laugh’d, too pretty much to stand;

Cast on the prostrate Nine a scornful look,

The thus in quaint Recitativo spoke.

‘O Cara! Cara! silence all that train:

Joy to great Chaos! let Division reign:

Chromatic tortures soon shall drive them hence,

Break all their nerves, and fritter all their sense:

One Trill shall harmonize joy, grief, and rage,

Wake the dull Church, and lull the ranting Stage;

To the same notes thy sons shall hum, or snore,

And all thy yawning daughters cry, encore.

Another Phoebus, thy own Phoebus, reigns,

Joys in my jiggs, and dances in my chains.”

But now, in 1741, far from it being the case that Handel is implicated in this attack, astonishingly he is seen as our musical saviour, a hero to threaten the rule of Dulness:

“ ‘But soon, ah soon Rebellion will commence.

If Music meanly borrows aid from Sense:

Strong in new Arms, lo! Giant Handel stands,

Like bold Briareus, with a hundred hands;

To stir, to rouze, to shake the Soul he comes,

And Jove’s own Thunders follow Mars’s Drums.

Arrest him, Empress; or you sleep no more’ -

She heard, and drove him to th’Hibernian shore.”

It is hardly surprising, if this is expressive of a new reputation, that Handel had no intention of contributing to the feeble resurgence of opera in the hands of Middlesex’s company. Indeed he quashed any suggestion of involvement explicitly:

“The report that the Direction of the Opera next winter is committed to my Care, is groundless. The gentlemen who have undertaken to middle with Harmony can not agree, and are quite in a Confusion. Whether I shall do some thing in the Oratorio way (as several of my friends desire) I can not determine as yet.”

But this was soon determined. Despite the fact that the Messiah was not to travel well from the Hibernian shore to London, Handel was ready with Samson, and, despite the report of a paralytic disorder in April 1743, three months later Semele was finished. Lord Middlesex, though, had powerful supporters, and Handel had to resist considerable pressure to offer the company new operas to rescue their flagging fortunes. It is probable that he did help in November, 1743, by allowing them to perform his opera Alessandro, in a revised form. But, despite offers of 1,000 guineas for two new operas or 500 guineas for one, Handel defied Middlesex, and threw down the gauntlet with Semele - not simply because this was an English ‘oratorio’ to rival the operas, but, rubbing salt in the wound, because it was the closest thing to an English opera Handel had ever composed.

So Semele was born: written by the greatest composer of opera in the period, at a time when his popularity increasingly depended on the composing of English oratorios, and in a context which required a response to a rival opera venture. It is hardly surprising that the work has posed problems of classification ever since. Is it an English opera, an oratorio, or a hybrid of the two? The ‘opera party’ mentioned by Mary Delany were probably so angered because they considered it to be direct operatic competition. Mainwaring, Handel’s first biographer, tried to have the best of both worlds. He included it in his list of ‘Oratorios’, but then added a footnote: “An English Opera, but called an Oratorio, and performed as such at Covent-Garden”. The advertisement for the first production claimed it would be performed “After the Manner of an Oratorio”, which is hardly definitive. A further problem is the subject-matter, which seemed to link the work more obviously with opera than with oratorio with its conventionally Biblical subjects. It was this, perhaps, which led Jennens to call it “a bawdy opera”. But even this apparently unequivocal labelling was quickly adapted to “a Bawdatorio”.

Semele resists simple classification. Mrs Delany (who had a right to judge, having followed so closely every development in Handel’s London career) saw at rehearsal something completely original in the work:

“I was yesterday morning at Mr. Handel’s to hear the rehearsal of Semele. It is a delightful piece of music, quite new and different from anything he has done ...”

Neither ‘opera’ nor ‘oratorio’ will adequately contextualize this sense of originality.

The manner of its first production and the use of the chorus are obvious signs of its affinity with oratorio. But there are also subtler indications of the differences between Semele and Handel’s operas (ignoring the matter of language, though ‘opera’ and ‘Italian’ had become almost inseparably united in the eyes of the opponents of both). Typically, in opera seria, affairs, doomed relationships and mismatches, have dynastic implications. Nothing really hangs on Semele’s relationship with Jupiter - the fate of nations, the alliances of rulers, the place of governing families do not stand in the balance, so the consequences are purely personal (though, of course, Semele’s overreaching has a broadly symbolic appeal). There can be no uncertainty attending the fate of Jupiter, God of Gods - he will lose one of the many mortal objects of his desire but his government of the heavens cannot be threatened. In Semele private affections, however they are received by an interested public chorus, have no public repercussions. On a structural level Semele, like the operas, is episodic. But composed not to be staged, there is no structure of dramatic surprise within the episodes. The interruptions at crucial moments; the secret witnessing of supposedly private interviews; the messages that change the course of scenes  - the whole range of interventions that comprise the ebb and flow of Handel’s opera scenes are absent here. So, too, to a certain extent, is the dramatic delay of personal revelation typical in the operas. Take, for instance, the relationship between Athamas and Ino as expressed in the second scene. Ino is in love with Athamas and sings her air “Turn, hopeless lover, turn thy eyes” - and weeps for him. He sees her response as a sign of her empathy not her love. This is the kind of misunderstanding in love typical of the operas. But not typical is the fact that Ino immediately reveals his mistake and expresses her love unequivocally. Finally they sing a duet in which she claims he has undone her and he wishes to atone. There is no room here, for the ambiguity and uncertainty that delays the revelation of love so often in the operas. The scene both introduces and solves the mystery.

Also on a structural level, of course, there is no need of musical justification for exits at the end of scenes, so the summarising function often falls to the chorus. In the operas exits often give rise to simile arias which dramatise, by analogy, the present state of the character’s mind and situation.

Also some of the arias have a rather gratuitous relationship to plot. This is certainly true of Semele’s first major air “The morning lark to mine accords his note”. The pathetic fallacy offered here is a standard feature of arias of pause, repose or melancholy in the operas. But Semele’s state of emotion, here, has not been prepared and rather belies the keynote of her character - a vainglorious confidence. The air is not a vehicle for plot, or the development of character, but a vehicle for the voice.

None of these points, though, definitively place Semele out of the category of opera, any more than they make it a lesser composition. Though there are changes to the original libretto, it is nonetheless important that this libretto is explicitly operatic. The signs of the spectacular remain in the text and many productions have shown that they can be reactivated. It is rather the case that such points make the work rather different from Handel’s general operatic practice.

 It could never be argued that Semele lacks drama. It is not, for instance, easy to extend the point about the lack of dramatic coherence in Semele’s ‘morning lark’ air. Even if we take an air like “Where’er you walk” - which might seem a likely candidate for critique, as it is an interpolation (from Pope’s ‘Summer’ pastoral) and therefore perhaps not essential to the integrity of the action - we find nevertheless that it contributes a considerable dramatic irony to the events:

“Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade;

Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade:

Where’er you tread, the blushing flow’rs shall rise;

And all things flourish where’er you turn your eyes.”

This is no merely descriptive lull before the storm. Jupiter promises “cool gales” to “fan the glade” of Semele’s paradise - a perverse irony in that it relates to the actual fate that awaits Semele,  where she will be anything other than “cooled” by this deity: “I burn, I burn, I faint, for pity I implore”.  Further, “all things” will “flourish” where she turns her eyes, again ironically untrue. Unfortunately she will turn her eyes too intensely on herself: “Myself I shall adore, / If I persist in gazing”. The consequence of her vanity will be her demand to see for herself the Godhead in all its glory: the result will hardly be ‘flourishing’! As with the best of Handel’s opera arias, so with “Where’ere you walk”. It can be enjoyed out of context, but it then loses a wealth of contextual meaning.

And there are whole sequences in the work which bear exact comparison with Handel’s operatic technique. The scene in the Cave of Sleep, for instance, is an operatic tour de force. The opening symphony - larghetto e piano per tutto - with its ponderous bassoon line is perfectly suggestive of the steady breathing of slumber. It is rudely followed by the allegro e forte introduction of Juno and Iris: “Somnus, awake”. The God of Sleep’s response is the inspired “Leave me loathsome light” with its dramatic failure of da capo form - Somnus can just about make it through the first section of the air, and he even manages the B Section but the A Section reprise is beyond him. True to his name, he nods off showing a shocking disrespect for the proprieties of conventional composition! Juno manages to wake him with the enticing prospect of Pasithea, at which point he comes (literally) to his senses with “More sweet is that name/ Than a soft purling stream”. And this perfect mini-drama directly relates to the urgency of plot. Somnus must be woken if Juno’s plans for Semele’s undoing are to succeed.

It’s not only the sense of drama here that is ‘operatic’ - the compositional features are typical of Handel’s best operas. The interruption, for instance, to strict da capo form often has a particular dramatic aptness in the operas (in Rodelinda, for instance, a sister thinks after the B section of an aria that she recognises the singer’s voice as her brother’s: her interruption is followed by the da capo reprise which allows the confirmation of recognition - as in this scene from Semele variation from the norm is motivated by dramatic expressiveness).

So where, exactly, does this leave us? Far from being closer to a definition of Semele we find it the more elusive. We are not even sure what the work is about! It has been suggested, for instance, that there are possible allegorical readings. One argument goes that Semele contains a subtle political warning to one of King George II’s mistresses, who Semele-like, seemed ready to over-reach her position. Another suggestion, returning to the political situation surrounding the first production, is that Semele represents Lord Middlesex’s opera venture and her overthrow the triumph of Handel’s response. But both allegories fail to make sense of the fact that Semele herself is undoubtedly the heroine of this work, however dubious her morality. This holds true for any production, but it was perhaps accentuated in 1744, because the star of Handel’s company then, La Francesina (the stage name for Elisabeth Duparc, a French soprano trained in Italy), took the title role, and was famed for a “lark-like voice” (very apt for “The morning lark to mine accords his note”): we return to Mrs Delany, who had originally been unimpressed by her singing:

“I was yesterday to hear Semele; it is a delightful piece of music ... Francesina is extremely improved, her notes are more distinct, and there is something in her running-divisions that is quite surprizing.”

Handel certainly wrote the part for a voice capable of florid passagework, and as a vehicle for vocal display it is as impressive as any he created.

Perhaps we can end, if allegory is to be allowed, by hazarding a fanciful alternative:  “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/ Or what’s a heaven for?”  Handel’s operatic ambition had been perhaps too much for the English to bear. Those who commune with the Gods are reminded of their indiscretions and punished for their overreaching by the advocates of moral propriety. The fate of Semele herself can be offered, not too seriously, as an allegory of Handel’s musical career. Just as Semele is to rise as a phoenix from the ashes, so, out of Handel’s ultimately doomed commitment to opera were reborn the dramatic skills that produced the finest ever series of oratorios in English.


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