Going with the Flow: Handel's 'Semele'

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.

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."

In ACT TWO, Jupiter's wife, the goddess Juno, hears about all this from Iris, her messenger. She's not happy, and begins to make careful plans. Juno determines to 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 hardly 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, as Juno watches in triumph and the chorus sadly mourns her loss.