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Sémélé (E. et É. Adenis / Dukas)




Either individually or together, Eugène and Édouard Adenis had made a speciality of providing the Institut with cantata texts for the Prix de Rome, and they were particularly inspired when they came to tackle the story of Semele. The usual trio of singers – soprano, tenor and baritone – was changed for the occasion to soprano, mezzo-soprano and baritone: soprano for naive Semele, mezzo-soprano for the goddess Juno (the betrayed wife, who appears in the guise of Semele’s nurse) and baritone for the god Jupiter (hopelessly in love with Semele). Seeking revenge, Juno sows doubt in Semele’s mind: is her lover really Jupiter, or an impostor? The goddess suggests that she make him swear by the Styx (an irrevocable oath) that he will grant whatever she wishes, whereupon she will ask him to appear to her in all his glory as a god. Semele is unaware that mortals cannot look upon Jupiter without being burned to death; she learns this as she dies in his arms. Dukas produced a cantata that is absolutely dazzling, both dramatically and musically, with a perfect balance between intimate poetry (the entrance of Semele, the lovers’ reunion) and fierce theatricality (the prelude, Juno’s first aria, the final storm). Furthermore the transitions suggested by the libretto take on their full meaning in his setting, giving the piece as a whole the natural articulation and fluidity that are the hallmark of accomplished works. Several recurring motifs (Juno’s anger, Semele’s love, the fanfares of the ‘revelation’, etc.) are used to connect the different narrative stages in the action, which – unlike Velléda the previous year – move in a very effective progression. But why then did the Académie fail to reward Dukas’s Sémélé with a prize? Why was the work left lying dormant in a box at the Paris Conservatoire for almost a hundred and thirty years, without ever being played by an orchestra? Wagnerian influence is to be dismissed as an explanation: Dukas shows perfect respect for the French dogmas of the time (the style of Massenet in particular); moreover Charpentier had made much greater use of leitmotif and modern Germanic texture in Didon, the winning cantata of 1887. Nor did Dukas make any alterations to the set text: the regulations specify that doing so could lead to disqualification.

    Libretto - 1
  • Sémélé (Eugène et Édouard Adenis)
  • Persons - 3
  • ADENIS, Édouard (1867-1952)
  • ADENIS, Eugène (1854-1923)
  • DUKAS, Paul (1865-1935)
  • Theme - 1
  • Prix de Rome – Concours de composition musicale
  • Study - 1
  • Sérié, Pierre – Velléda and Sémélé: final hesitations of the Institut de France prior to making a reactionary choice
  • Press article -  1
  • Le Ménestrel, 23 juin 1889 [prix de Rome]