Händel’s Semele in Göttingen

Semele by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) was the featured Festival Opera, fully staged, at the Göttingen International Händel Festival in 2023 — even though by the composer’s definition it was not an opera at all, but rather just a “Story” told “after the Manner of an Oratorio.”

Program booklet for Semele in Göttingen

The text of Semele is in English, not Italian, which might have been one reason that Händel (and his contemporaries in London) did not consider it an opera. Also, he didn’t finish Semele until 1744, three years after announcing that he was not going to compose any more operas.

In the HWV-catalogue of Händel’s works (HWV = Händel-Werke-Verzeichnis in German), Semele has the number HWV 58. This groups it with his other oratorios such as the Messiah (HWV 56) and Hercules (HWV 60), both of which I have also seen in recent years as staged operas.

Introductory slide for the introductory talk

The introductory talk for Semele on the night I was there was quite unusual. Ordinarily these talks are given by the dramaturge who has been working on the production, or in Göttingen by one of the music professors from the university, but in this case it was given by a law professor who took us through the plot of Semele by explaining what actions would or would not be punishable under current German law. There was nothing illegal, for example, about Semele breaking off her engagement with Athamas — an engagement that had been arranged by her father, the King of Thebes, for political reasons.

Semele was secretly having an affair with Jupiter, the King of the Gods, who appeared to her in the form of a human or an eagle, but never in his full splendor as a god — because she was a mere mortal, so one glance would suffice to kill her (which is exactly what happens at the end).

Juno, Jupiter’s jealous wife, was the one who committed the most now-illegal acts in her efforts to take revenge on Semele.

Seating in the Deutsches Theater Göttingen

The German Theater (Deutsches Theater) in Göttingen is not ordinarily used as an opera house, although it does have a small orchestra pit. If I have understood correctly, the only operas ever given here are the Händel Festival Operas each year in the spring. (This is why I have not included Göttingen in my list of the seventy-one German opera houses that I have been to so far.)

Balconies in the Deutsches Theater Göttingen

The International Händel Festival in Göttingen began in 1920, which makes it the oldest of the three Händel festivals that are held in Germany each year. The other two are in Karlsruhe (for no particular reason, except that they like Händel) and Halle (which was Händel’s birthplace).

Besides Göttingen, I have also been to the Händel Festival in Karlsruhe, where I saw his opera Ottone, Re di Germania (Otto, King of Germany) in 2023.

Applause after Semele in Göttingen

Just a few weeks after the Göttingen production, the Bavarian State Opera came out with another new staged production of Semele, at the Prinzregententheater in Munich, but I unfortunately could not arrange to see it. Claus Guth was the stage director, and the singers included Brenda Rae as Semele, Michael Spyres as Jupiter and Jakub Jósef Orliński as Athamas — to mention only those I used to know from the Frankfurt Opera. Not surprisingly, with a cast like that, the Munich Semele got rave reviews, and I hope it will be reprised at some point with the same cast. (It is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, so it will definitely be shown there.)


Jupiter and Sémélé by Gustave Moreau

All you loyal readers of my post on the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) might recall that Moreau painted several pictures of Semele, dead and naked in Jupiter’s arms. In that post, I noted: “I have the impression that most of the women in Moreau’s paintings are small and naked (some dead, some not), and that the men and male gods pay little attention to them.”

Fortunately, Händel’s Semele is a stronger and more complex person than Moreau’s — but that doesn’t prevent her from dying from a single glace at Jupiter when he finally appears (at her insistence) in his divine form, as “the mighty thunderer, armed with inevitable fire”.

My photos in this post are from 2018 (Moreau) and 2023 (Göttingen).
I wrote the text in 2023.

See more posts on the composer Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759).

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