Handel’s Semele is Bath Opera’s main production in Bath for February 2024. It will be directed by Dave Key Pugh and conducted by Peter Blackwood. Auditions were held at the end of July and rehearsals start in September.
The principal soloists which have been cast are:
- SEMELE – Hannah Drury
- JUPITER – Alex Pinkstone
- JUNO – Judy Davis
- IRIS – Bruna Figueiredo
- ATHAMAS – Gill Clark
- CADMUS – Niall Hoskin
- SOMNUS – Andrew Havers
- INO – Becky Granger
Here is director Dave Key Pugh’s introduction to the opera and character descriptions:
Precis: Jupiter takes the mortal Princess Semele to be his mistress. When Jupiter’s wife, Juno, hears of her husband’s adultery she is enraged, and plots to ensure Semele’s downfall. In disguise, Juno appeals to the girl’s vanity and persuades her to insist on seeing her lover in his divine form. Jupiter reluctantly agrees but the magnificence of his true form burns and consumes Semele. From her ashes, though, arise her unborn child by Jupiter—Bacchus, god of wine and ecstasy.
“Semele” was written as a ‘musical drama after the manner of an oratorio’ to be presented in the Lent season at Covent Garden in 1744. However, instead of an improving Biblical text a la Messiah, Handel instead set an adaptation of a Congreve libretto based on a licentious tale of adultery from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It may have only been performed four times in the composer’s lifetime – and in concert form at that – but it has only gained in reputation and popularity as the centuries pass and contains some of Handel’s finest polyphonic operatic choruses.
Our production will be set five minutes from now, in a world adjacent to our own. The drab reality of the populace is enlivened by the new Gods of the internet, their grey lives brightened by living vicariously through following or worshipping the ‘influencers’, instagrammers and social media stars such as Jupiter, Juno and so on. Semele will be swept off, less to a mountain top, and instead to a luxury spa and retreat by her paramour. Her ultimate destruction, however, the culmination of the jealous machinations of Juno, does in the end prove a blessing in disguise for everyone else, however, as her sad demise does lead to the creation of Bacchus, the new ‘God’ of wine and the chorus end by celebrating their new form of relief and escape – inordinate intoxication!
Peter and I have cut the opera down to two and a half hours (including the interval) but this necessitates a pace and momentum to the whole presentation and a dynamic staging with respect to the scenery and stage furniture. To move the piece from Oratoria to full Opera, we will do all we can to avoid the ‘us and them’ divide between the soloists and the chorus. Chorus members will be integrated into many of the recits and arias and their silent participation in these scenes will be just as demanding and critical to the production as their full-throated contribution to the wonderful choral sections.
Musically, the most well-known aria is Jupiter’s “Where’er you walk” but recordings of further extracts can be found without great difficulty and there are at least eight recordings of the opera. If you prefer a more visual exploration, Garsington Opera have a short playlist on YouTube including excerpts from their 2017 production and some discussion of the opera here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=we4oi9X9l54&list=PLLZjpKQEoPRKdgTz1S5xDyuR2QG-yx4Wd or a different complete production can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FibDMWk0i5k&t=8s.
Semele: (Sop) A young princess with ambition. Not content to settle for an ordinary life or even marrying a prince, she has set her sights on joining the divine few on Olympus. Confident, daring and focussed, she has turned the head of Jupiter himself… but sadly she might, in the end, prove fatally suggestible…
Jupiter: (Tenor) The ‘King of the Gods’ – a fitness vlogger and gym bunny. Charismatic, debonair and a trend-setter. Possibly not the sharpest tool in the Pantheon and a total stranger to monogamy but he means well in the moment. Look… it’s the tenor role – what did you expect?
Juno: (Mezzo) Jupiter’s wife – wellness guru, ‘yummy mummy’ and lifestyle influencer. For legal reasons the word ‘Goop’ will not be used in the context of this character. Juno has been a huge success at everything she turns her hand to, from her line of designer maternity wear, her perfume, her string of autobiographies, her range of aromatherapy incenses… if only she could keep the other half of the power couple from straying so publicly…
Iris: (Sop) Juno’s bff (best female friend for those of us over forty!) and the queen of the colourful selfie. Never met a colour that she couldn’t accessorize. This rainbow goddess knows that ‘more is more’ and has the Instagram following to prove it. A ray of sunshine in any room, Iris loves photogenic puppies, rainbows, perfect eyebrows… and watching Juno work herself into a frothing rage.
Cadmus: (Baritone) Father of Ino and Semele. A politician trying his best in difficult circumstances but not a natural matchmaker. Dignified with a natural air of authority and a bit of a flair for the dramatic. Means well, but has a tendency to look on the downside.
Ino: (Alto) Semele’s sister. Has spent her whole life as ‘the other daughter’. Wildly in love with Athamas who, cruelly, has been arranged in marriage for Semele… who doesn’t even want him! Utterly oblivious of her own privilege, Ino can’t see beyond her own passion. But hey – this is an opera…
Athamas: (Countertenor/Alto) Just as bad/good as Ino. This passionate young man can hardly be blamed for preferring the sister who is in love with him over the sister that has no interest in him – and when he finally learns to use his words and do more than just pine and mope over the ladies, he proves a serviceably ardent and effusive lover… even if there is a suspicion that he is better at professing love than, um, exercising it!
Somnus: (Bass) Originally the ‘God of Sleep’, our Somnus will be a ‘friend of the weed’. When he can gather his thoughts, Somnus is philosopher, mindfulness advocate and spiritual explorer…. basically a millennial hippy who prefers the unconscious to the expanded conscious. Potentially scene-stealing but only appears in the second half of the opera.
Apollo: (Tenor) and Priest: (Bass)
These two roles ‘bookend’ the opera. The Priest of Juno is the first voice heard and Apollo doesn’t appear until a few minutes before the end. Both have one brief recit (12 or 20 bars each) and then re-join the chorus. The priest will be a sober and serious man, obsessed with maintaining the eternal flame in honour of Juno – Apollo will be quite the reverse, a party dude who is charged with the difficult task of taking us from the tragic death of Semele, via the good news of booze, into a sudden and unexpected happy ending…