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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.
The god of gods, Jupiter, kidnaps and seduces the king’s daughter Semele whose ambition, stoked by Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno, leads to ruin. In the end, love is not the only thing reduced to ashes.
Director Barrie Kosky depicts the gods as suffering human beings, bringing them close to the viewers. »A pessimistic, serious, yet touching and thoughtful interpretation. Closer to the baroque cult of death – a lament about the fragility of existence – than to a (also baroque) celebration of joy and abundance.« [BR Klassik]
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.