Going with the Flow: Handel's 'Semele'

WOO-1251-Semele-300In 1977, when the Bee Gees wrote their hit song "Stayin' Alive," that's very much what the band itself was doing -- and it gave the group something in common with a composer who was faced with flagging popularity more than 200 years earlier: George Frideric Handel.

The Bee Gees were one of most successful bands of the late 1960s and early '70s, with hits including "I've Gotta Get a Message to You," "Words" and 1971's "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," their first number one song in the U.S.

Then, in the mid '70s, the popularity of soft rock began yielding to the soaring disco craze, and the Bee Gees seemed dead in the water. But after a couple of down years, the band emerged with a new, disco-ready image. With their music for the 1977 movie hit Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees were back on top; the film launched three number one songs, including "Stayin' Alive."

Back in the 1720s and early '30s, Handel had become a musical star by exploiting the runaway popularity of Italian opera in the theaters of London. He composed a long list of hit operas, all using much the same formula: strings of brilliant arias for the world's most acrobatic singers.

But, like soft rock in the 1970s, the appeal of Italian opera in London didn't last forever. In its place, a taste for English oratorios emerged. Unlike Italian operas, the oratorios were written in their audience's own language and often had inspiring, spiritual themes, in contrast to opera's overt passion and violent intrigue. Handel took full advantage of the trend. The apex of this new phase in his career came in 1742 with Messiah, arguably the most popular oratorio of all time. Still, opera had hardly died out, and in 1744 Handel came up with Semele, a fascinating drama seemingly aimed at both markets.

Whether Semele is an opera or an oratorio is a question that's pretty much up for grabs. Handel said it should be performed "in the manner of an oratorio," which might suggest that he didn't think it really was an oratorio. And the score features some decidedly operatic elements -- a host of spectacular arias and a sassy story that's hardly spiritual. Yet it's written in English, and also leans heavily on big choral numbers, a staple of the oratorio style.

As it turned out Handel may have been overly ambitious; it seems his audiences didn't know quite what to make of the piece. The oratorio crowd was expecting something uplifting, like Messiah, and the lustful characters of Semele hardly fit that bill. Opera lovers seemed to think it was somehow impure -- for one thing, opera was supposed to be in Italian, not English, even in London. And what about all those choruses? Crowd scenes were a rarity in opera houses of the era.

Today, those problems have faded. Audiences have long since grown accustomed to everything from bold sensuality to subtle spiritualism, and from intimate arias to outlandish, musical excess. So by now, Handel's hybrid drama works perfectly well both in the theater and in the concert hall.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Semele from the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts in Toronto, home to the Canadian Opera Company. The production, sung in the original English, stars soprano Jane Archibald in a smashing performance as Semele, with tenor William Burden as the lecherous god Jupiter and mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy as Jupiter's jealous wife, Juno.