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Endless pleasure, endless love from Semele
Angels ever bright and fair from Theodora

February 16, 2020: Ying Fang, soprano; Ken Noda, piano

Handel had been producing Italian opera for thirty years in London when in 1741 he came to a financial dead end and turned to oratorio as his main creative outlet. But Semele, his 1743 setting of William Congreve’s English opera libretto, shows that he had not quite given up his operatic aspirations. Though intended for concert performance “after the Manner of an oratorio,” the work was doomed when it opened in February 1744 because the public wanted a Lenten oratorio rather than something so close to Italian opera and full of licentious gods. Despite containing some of Handel’s most lovely and effective music, Semele remained in a mixed-genre wasteland until the modern era when it became one of his most-performed works.

Semele is a mortal woman, betrothed to Athamas but in love with the god Jupiter. At her request he snatches her aloft from the wedding ceremony. Juno, Jupiter’s wife and guardian of marriage vows, plays on Semele’s ambition to become immortal and, disguised as Semele’s sister, tells her to refuse Jupiter’s advances until he promises to appear to her in his true godlike form. Juno knows he will have to keep his promise, which will end Semele’s life.

At the end of Act I, Semele sings the delightful, justly famous air “Endless pleasure, endless love,” which tells of her joy now that she is in Jupiter’s realm. Congreve’s libretto had assigned this “gavotte” to another character after Semele’s exit from the scene, but Handel no doubt wanted to give his star another opportunity to shine and decided such a discrepancy did not matter in an unstaged oratorio.

Handel composed Theodora between June 30 and July 31, 1749, setting a libretto by Thomas Morell, who had adapted a story from Robert Boyle’s The Martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus (1687) together with some material from Pierre Corneille’s Théodore, vierge et martyre (1646). This fourth and best of Morell’s oratorio librettos for 

Handel inspired some of the composer’s most profound music. First performed on March 16, 1750, Theodora, like Semele, was not well-received—possibly because of its unusual subject matter and tragic ending. Its failure greatly disappointed Handel, who considered it his best oratorio. Two centuries later the work’s merits have been fully recognized and it has received masterful revivals, some even staged.

The non-Biblical story involves Christian martyr Theodora, who is condemned to slavery as a temple prostitute by Valens, Roman president of Antioch, for refusing to offer sacrifices to goddesses Venus and Flora. Didymus, a Roman officer converted to Christianity by Theodora, helps her escape at the cost of his own freedom. She offers her life in exchange for his, but Valens condemns them both to death.

Theodora sings the heartfelt “Angels, ever bright and fair” in Act I, scene 5, in response to being taken prisoner and told of the fate worse than death that awaits her. She pleads with the angels to take her to heaven as a virgin. Her poignant pleas come to a brief contrasting peak before resuming with the return of the opening, now with improvisatory embellishments of the melody, as was customary in Handel’s day.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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