Sex, Drugs and Baroque Opera

Classic Arts Features   Sex, Drugs and Baroque Opera
New York City Opera walks on the wild side of the 18th century this fall with Handel's Semele.

"The women think he has exposed their Bitchery too much; and the Gentlemen, are offended with him, for the discovery of their follyes."

So wrote John Dryden, in defense of "The Double Dealer" by his prot_g_ William Congreve, librettist of Semele and one of the imposing figures of the great age of English satire. Drawing on ancient Greek and Roman examples, satires could be gently playful, following Horace, or scathingly vicious, after Juvenal. They exposed the foibles of society, and attacked the hypocrisy or misrule of leading public figures, as in The Beggars' Opera. In all cases, the aim was to use laughter to bring audiences to a greater understanding of themselves, their leading citizens, and the society they lived in.

But this was not simply a matter of social commentary; it was seen by many as a political duty. The British people were fiercely proud of the fact that they lived in a limited monarchy with regular elections. There was almost no censorship in Britain and writers saw the freedom to expose incompetence and corruption as a precious asset when they compared themselves to the heavily censored, absolutist monarchies of Europe, in particular Louis XIV's France. Many writers drew parallels with ancient Athens, suggesting that the spirit of democracy lived in Aristophanes' pillorying of corrupt demagogues and that the decline of satirical poetry in both Greece and Rome prefigured those societies' descent into servile dictatorship. A people who did not have the spirit to criticize their leaders openly were only one short step away from slavery, and laughter was a wonderfully effective weapon for keeping that spirit alive.

One of the most vivid ways in which political satire was employed was through the thin veil of classical myth. Audiences knew the stories in detail, and mythical figures were easily understood as allegories for current monarchs, politicians, and political events. We know that audiences recognized these parallels, because they would regularly applaud or catcall speeches in plays that reflected on current events.

Congreve's Semele libretto was written around 1705 for an opera with music by John Eccles (which apparently was never performed). During these years, politicians and public alike were anxious about who would succeed the childless Queen Anne. The 1689 revolution had removed the Catholic Stuarts, and had implicitly asserted Parliament's right to depose monarchs who ruled unconstitutionally. The Act of Settlement (1701) had granted the succession to the Protestant House of Hanover on Anne's death. However many Britons, particularly on the "religious right," held that since the monarchy was divinely chosen, they remained bound by oath to the Stuart Kings. There was widespread anxiety that Anne's death would bring an attempted counter-revolution, supported by France, to place the (Catholic) son of James II on the throne. Congreve's portrayal of Jupiter, the King of the gods, is a clear reminder of the libidinous, unconstitutional rule of the Stuart Kings. Moreover, Act I of Semele is Congreve's own addition to the myth as found in Ovid's Metamorphoses. It shows Semele's choice between marrying her lawfully chosen (but perhaps rather boring) husband and elopement with a dashing foreigner. This was a typical way of portraying Britain's choice between the legitimate Hanoverian kings and the romantic but dangerous Stuarts. Semele's unfortunate fate leaves no doubt as to Congreve's view of the subject.

In the 1740s, more than three decades after Congreve wrote his libretto, Handel was most likely attracted to it by the success of Thomas Arne's new setting of Congreve's masque The Judgement of Paris. By this time, Handel had given up writing Italian operas in favor of English oratorios with biblical plots, which were cheaper to produce because they were intended for unstaged performances without sets and costumes. They could also be performed on holy days in Lent when "'theatrical" performances were banned, and they involved large and elaborate choruses‹a novelty in theater at that time. In adapting Semele to this oratorio format, Handel created a wonderful blend of sacred solemnity and operatic drama. Not daring to call it an oratorio (since it was not remotely religious), he called it The Story of Semele, Performed after the manner of an oratorio.

It was, however, a disastrous failure, receiving only five performances. Given the excellence of its dramatic, sensuous, and inventive music and its poetic libretto, the explanation for its failure must lie in the very different social and political climate of the 1740s. In 1714, the Hanoverian George I had succeeded to the throne peacefully, an attempted invasion in 1715 easily crushed. George II had succeeded him in 1727 to the accompaniment of Handel's sublime anthems, and while the Stuarts continued to claim the British throne (and would try one last time in 1745), as far as the British establishment was concerned, the matter was settled. By 1744, social attitudes towards royal adultery, female sexuality, and the place of women had changed considerably, and in that context Semele had acquired a political coloring quite different than that imagined by Congreve.

In 1735, on a visit to Hanover, George II had begun an affair with Amalie von Wallmoden (reporting the progress of the liaison in detail to his wife, Queen Caroline!). Two years later, following Caroline's death, Wallmoden came to England. She was naturalized and created Countess of Yarmouth, with an income of £4000 a year. Unfamiliar with British politics, she seems to have abstained from using her emotional and political power over the King for several years. By the early 1740s, however, she was perceived by the public to wield a strong influence. She was alleged to have been involved with the peerage creations in 1741, and around 1743 she was the subject of an anonymous pamphlet which congratulated her on engineering Prime Minster Walpole's fall from office. Semele could easily be seen as a representation of the over-ambitious royal mistress who uses her sexual power to manipulate a weak-willed monarch.

Semele's wary reception illustrates a crucial change in the English public's attitudes toward their leaders. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it was virtually required for the monarch to have mistresses as proof of his virility. Queen Caroline had accepted this and tried to engineer mistresses for her husband who would not wield excessive personal or political influence. George II enjoyed the satires that circulated about his affairs because they publicized his manly virtues. In public perception, however, there was always a fine line between natural virility and being in thrall to women, and in the early eighteenth century this line was moving. Increasingly, an uncontrollable sexual appetite was seen as a form of effeminacy, and therefore uncomfortably similar to the spineless "luxury" of Italy, the land of popery, sodomy‹and opera (moralists never tired of pointing out the connections between these three!). George's shameless flaunting of his infidelities seemed increasingly to belong to a different age. The public increasingly expected their divinely-ordained monarch to behave with more Christian decency‹or at least discretion.

Moreover, expectations about female behavior had changed considerably. While the heroines of seventeenth-century comedy (including Congreve's) were witty, worldly young ladies of fiercely independent spirit, groups such as the Society for the Reformation of Manners now energetically promoted the virtues of temperance and, above all, chastity as the supreme virtues. The Society prosecuted gin houses, brothels, and general acts of "lewdness", and this change in attitudes was reflected in the theater and novels. It reached its height with the heroines of Richardson's novels Pamela (1740), who resists the attentions of her employer until he marries her, and Clarissa (1748), who commits suicide rather than live after her rape. In such a climate, Semele was hardly an ideal heroine. Indeed Charles Jennens, librettist of Messiah and Belshazzar, referred to Handel's work as "no oratorio but a bawdy opera" and refused to subscribe to a copy. It was the only work of Handel's that he did not buy.

What is interesting is that Handel clearly understood the need to tone down the libretto for performance during Lent in this more moralistic age. He removed the most explicit language, including the clearly sexual motivation for Jove's final capitulation to Semele:

Jupiter: Speak, speak, your Desire,
[I'm all over Fire.]
Say what you require,
I'll grant it‹ [now let us retire.]

Ditto the particularly erotic means of her death:

Juno: But like himself, the mighty Thunderer
In Pomp of Majesty,
And heav'nly Attire;
As when he proud Saturnia charms,
And with ineffable Delights
Fills her encircling Arms,
And pays the Nuptial Rites.
[By this Conjunction
With entire Divinity]

You shall partake of
[heav'nly Essence - replaced with "immortality"]

He removed an unpalatable reference to Juno being both Jupiter's sister and his wife, and he changed Juno's description of Semele from "curs'd adulteress" to "cursêëd Semele". And, perhaps anticipating royal sensitivity, he toned down references to Semele's insatiable ambition:

Semele: I love and am lov'd, yet more I desire;
Ah, how foolish a Thing is Fruition!
As one Passion cools, some other takes Fire,
And I'm still in a longing Condition.
Whate'er I possess
Soon seems an Excess.
For something untry'd I petition;
Tho' daily I prove
The Pleasures of love,
I die for the Joys of Ambition.

But whatever Handel cut from the libretto, he more than put back into the music‹and this was made possible by the fact that Semele was originally not staged. The abandoned sensuality of the arias "Endless pleasure" and "With fond desiring" or the erotic slumbers of "O sleep, why dost thou leave me?" could not be more explicit, nor could Jupiter's aroused confusion in "Come to my arms." But it was Handel's change to the ending that was most audacious. Congreve's libretto originally ended with a dance in praise of Bacchus, reveling in the power of alcohol over love. Handel instead gives Bacchus a full Coronation Anthem, redolent of his famous "Zadok the Priest" and the "Hallelujah" chorus from Messiah.

This use of the solemnity of oratorio at the opening and close of Semele to balance the operatic drama of the central story is one of the work's particular strengths, with each element dramatically complimenting the other. However, to a world increasingly preoccupied with temperance and chastity, this final apotheosis to the god of drink and debauchery must have seemed several steps too far. This was particularly insensitive at a time when opera tended (with a few notable exceptions) to celebrate the virtues of hereditary and absolutist rule.

Fortunately, modern audiences are no longer blinded by this dogmatic religious moralism and can see beyond it to the heart of the points that Congreve was making about human frailty‹especially in those who hold political power. Semele is a witty but scathing satire on the power of sexuality to cloud the judgment of those in office and on the ambitions of those who seek power from them. And when our leaders wield powers of life and death over most of the globe, surely it is healthier to laugh at their weaknesses than to look the other way.

John Andrews, a British conductor and musicologist, has recently completed a Ph.D. on the social, political, and religious context of Handel's Semele.

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