Handel's drama has three acts and is set in the world of Roman mythology. The title character is a princess, daughter of Cadmus, the King of Thebes. She's engaged to marry Athamas, a prince from another kingdom.
But Semele doesn't actually love Athamas, and the guy she is in love with isn't really a guy at all. He's Jupiter, king of the gods. He visits her in human form, and the two have a torrid affair going.
Alvaro Yañez/courtesy of the Théâtre de Champs-Élysées
Jaël Azzaretti and Vivica Genaux in 'Semele.'
Jaël Azzaretti and Vivica Genaux in 'Semele.' Alvaro Yañez/courtesy of the Théâtre de Champs-Élysées
As ACT ONE opens, Semele's wedding to Athamas is about to begin, but Semele is stalling. So is her sister, Ino, who is in love with Athamas. While various delaying tactics are going on, Semele hopes that Jupiter will bail her out, and he does. There's a fearsome clap of thunder, and the sacred flames at the altar die out. Then the altar itself suddenly disappears. Terrified, everyone runs away. With the wedding on hold, Ino tells Athamas that she loves him — but he's a bit dense, and doesn't get the message.
Cadmus then reports that Jupiter has taken the form of an eagle, and swept Semele off to a godly palace — leaving nothing behind but "a celestial odour, and ambrosial dew." As the act ends, Semele sings joyfully about herself, saying, "Endless pleasure, endless love, Semele enjoys above."
Danielle de Niese .......... Semele
Vivica Genaux ............. Juno, Iro
Richard Croft ................. Jupiter
Jaël Azzaretti ...................... Iris
Peter Rose ...... Cadmus, Somnus
Stephen Wallace .......... Athamas
Sébastien Droy ................ Apollo
Claire Debono ................. Cupid
Les Talens Lyriques
Champs-Elysées Theatre Chorus
Christophe Rousset, conductor
As ACT TWO begins, Jupiter's wife, the goddess Juno, hears about all this from Iris, her messenger. Juno is not happy, and begins to make careful plans. She'll call on Somnus, the god of sleep, to help her sneak into the palace and deal with Semele.
For her part, Semele is already having issues with life in the palace. She's been restless at night, and she's uncomfortable as the only human woman in a world of gods, nymphs and zephyrs.
Jupiter comes to her in human form, and Semele greets him passionately. But he senses she's not happy, and thinks a bit of human company might help. So he sends for Ino. Jupiter then transforms the scene to a beautiful, Arcadian landscape, and the sisters rejoice in their pastoral surroundings.
To begin ACT THREE, Juno makes her move to break up Jupiter's romance at Semele's expense. Juno goes to Somnus, who's resting in his remote cave. At first, she and Iris have trouble waking Somnus up — he is the god of sleep, after all.
Finally, when Juno promises him a beautiful nymph as his reward, Somnus rouses himself and agrees to her plan. First, he'll charm the palace guards so Juno can sneak in. He'll also put Ino to sleep, allowing Juno to talk with Semele while disguised as Ino. And while Jupiter is sleeping, Somnus will give him a dream, causing Jupiter to desire Semele so passionately that he'll agree to whatever she wants.
In the palace, Semele is surrounded by luxury, but she's not content. She wants to love Jupiter as he really is, as a god, not just in his human form. Juno, in her Ino disguise, shows Semele what that might be like. She produces a magic mirror. When Semele looks into it, she sees herself reflected as a beautiful goddess. Then, still pretending to be Ino, Juno says that Semele should refuse to make love to Jupiter unless he comes to her in his godly form, as "the Mighty Thunderer."
After Juno leaves, Jupiter shows up, and he's more than ready for a little hanky-panky. When Semele won't cooperate, he does what his dream suggested, and promises to grant her any demand. When he hears what she wants, he regrets his promise. He knows that if he comes to her in his real form, in a storm of thunder and lightening, she'll be destroyed. But a deal is a deal. Jupiter rises into the heavens, and descends on Semele in a fiery cloud. Semele knows that she's made a mistake, but it's too late; she's engulfed in his flames, and dies — while Juno watches in triumph.
In the final scene, Ino is back home in Thebes. Her father Cadmus has seen Semele's death as a violent storm. Ino tells him what happened, and also reports an order from Juno — that Ino should marry Athamas. Cadmus agrees.
The god Apollo then appears, and announces Semele's true fate: Bacchus, the god of wine and ecstasy, will rise from her ashes. And as pure pleasure had always been Semele's true desire, everyone celebrates a joyful outcome.