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Semele, the daughter of King Cadmus, is due to marry Prince Athamas, though secretly she loves Jupiter, father of the gods. Her sister Ino is unhappily in love with Athamas and can barely conceal her despair – much to her father’s displeasure. Athamas is shocked when he realizes that he’s the reason for Ino’s sorrows. A bewildered Cadmus announces that Jupiter, in the guise of an eagle, has carried off Semele. Semele enjoys the pleasures of love.
Jupiter’s wife Juno hears about her husband’s new lover from her messenger Iris. She is consumed with jealousy. Semele loves Jupiter beyond all measure but is painfully aware of an insurmountable barrier between herself and the god. Jupiter is troubled by this and does all he can to distract Semele.
Aided by Somnus, the god of sleep, Juno appears to Semele as her sister Ino, whispering that she can become immortal if she sees Jupiter just once in his true, divine form. At their next rendezvous, Semele demands maximum fulfilment. Jupiter is unable to dissuade the woman he loves so much and she is burnt to death in the supreme deity’s fiery rays. Jupiter proclaims through Apollo that Dionysus, god of ecstasy, shall rise from her ashes. Ino and Athamas become the new royal couple and their wedding is joyously celebrated.
Nicole Chevalier, the winner of the Faust Award who last turned the heads of men and women during her sensational performances in Les Contes d’Hoffmann and La Belle Hélène, now enchants the father of the gods himself as the titular heroine Semele. As Jupiter, ace Baroque performer Allan Clayton – who is already experienced in the world of the ancient Gods thanks to his leading role in Barrie Kosky's production of Castor et Pollux – here displays his full acting and singing prowess.
Jupiter, god of gods and master of disguise when it comes to conquering desirable women, kidnaps and seduces the king’s daughter Semele. Juno, Jupiter’s deeply hurt wife, does everything in her power to put an end to the unbridled affair. She even asks the idle god Somnus for help. She too puts her faith in the power of disguise: she appears to her rival as Semele’s sister Ino, and persuades her to make Jupiter reveal himself to her in his true, godly form. Semele’s persistence is greater than Jupiter’s masculine fortitude. Yet her fate is therefore sealed: she dies gruesomely in the burning rays of godly lighting. However, out of Semele’s ashes arises an unborn child: Bacchus, god of intoxication, excess and ecstasy.
Despite the splendid choirs typical of oratorios and the expressive arias which did not have to adhere to the rigid formula of opera seria, Handel’s contemporaries turned their noses up at the saucily erotic and more than a little humorous subject matter, which they deemed to be wholly inappropriate for an oratorio. Yet that all quickly changed. Today, Semele is one of the most popular works penned by Georg Friedrich Handel. Baroque specialist Konrad Junghänel, and artistic director Barrie Kosky discover the female will to power in the Ovidian myth.