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Sigmund Theophil Staden: Seelewig, 'Ein Waldgedicht oder Freudenspiel' in 3 acts

Monika Mauch (Seelewig, Singkunst), Ute Kreidler (Sinnigunda), Heidrun Luchterhand (Herzigilt), soprano; Franziska Gottwald (Gwissulda, Echo), mezzosoprano; Sebastian Hübner (Künsteling, Malkunst), Hans Jörg Mammel (Ehrelob, Eitelkeit), tenor; Armin Gottstein (Reichimuth), baritone; Ulrich Maier (Trügewalt), bass
I Ciarlatani
Dir.: Klaus Winkler

rec: July 22 - 24/26, Karlsruhe (Ger), Studio SWR
CPO - 999 905-2 (77'09")

Manuela Mohr, Lucia Dimmeler, recorder; Isacco Colombo, bombard; Klaus Winkler, shawms; Christoph Hesse, Ulrike Winkler, violin; Michael Spengler, viola da gamba; Ursula Bruckdorfer, dulcian; Werner Engelhard, horn, sackbut; Johannes Vogt, theorbo; Ulrich Wedemeier, chitarrone, guitar; Alexander Weimann, harpsichord, organ, regal

In the first decades of the 17th century, Italy was the place to be for many musicians from all over Europe. The birth of the seconda prattica was a development which shook the musical world. And Germany was one of the countries whose composers crossed the Alpes to listen and learn. Once they returned their heads were full of the new concepts they had got acquainted with in Italy.
One of the features of the ‘new style’ was the emergence of the opera. As keen as many composers were to imitate the newest trends in instrumental and vocal music in Italy, apparently the opera was a much more difficult phenomenon to copy. One German composer who was strongly influenced by Italian music was Heinrich Schütz. It is generally thought that it was he who, with Dafne in 1627, wrote the first German opera. But since the music is lost it is impossible to be sure that his work can really be considered an opera.
Due to the loss of Dafne it is Seelewig by Sigmund Theophil Staden which is now considered the first German opera. It was first performed in Nuremberg in 1644. The composer didn't call it an opera, though. Its title is, translated: 'The Sacred Wood Poem or Comedy, called Seelewig, set in singing style in the Italian manner'. It is a morality play in which it is shown "how the evil enemy seeks to ruin pious souls in many various ways and how these, however, are kept from eternal damnation by God's word, through conscience and reason."

The subject of this moral drama is not unlike that of Emilio de' Cavalieri's Rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo, which was first performed in 1600. It is not known whether the librettist of Seelewig, Georg Philipp Harsdörffer (1607 - 1658), was acquainted with De' Cavalieri's work, but he travelled to Italy in 1627, so he must have been aware of what was going on out there. On the other hand, this kind of moral dramas were pretty common in those days, and also used by the Jesuits to promote the ideals of the Counter-Reformation.

As usual in pieces like this the characters are symbolic: Seelewig (pronounced 'seel-ewig') means 'eternal soul', symbolising any pious person. She is threatened by Satan, here called Trügewalt (this name refers to the German verb trügen, to deceive), who uses Seelewig's companion Sinnigunda (Sensuality) to achieve his goal. He also convinces three shepherds - Künsteling, Ehrelob and Reichimuth - to work for him. The opposing forces are Herzigilt (Reason) and Gwissulda (Conscience).

Although the title refers to 'the Italian manner' one shouldn't expect anything like the operas by Monteverdi (whose Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and L'incoronazione di Poppea date from 1641 and 1642 respectively). The story develops through short dialogues of the protagonists, but these can't be considered recitatives. The mostly strophic songs are relatively simple and very close to the early 17th century German secular song. At the end of the second act Eitelkeit sings a song – ‘Lied über die Eitelkeit’-, which doesn't belong to Seelewig, and which stylistically isn't any different from the music in the ‘opera’.
This doesn’t mean there are no connections to the Italian opera at all. These are in particular the use of instruments to support specific characters, and also the practice of echo-effects. These are used to strongly dramatic effect in the third act, in the exchange between Seelewig, Sinnigunda and Trügewalt (who, otherwise singing in bass range, uses the falsetto to deceive Seelewig).

Whereas I think Monteverdi's operas can be heard without any staging or acting, I have the feeling this is more difficult with Seelewig. While listening I often thought something was missing. That is partly due to the performance, though. The music as such is good enough to listen to, but there seems to be a lack of real interaction between the singers. I also feels the tempi are a little slowish. A bit more involvement and passion wouldn't harm.
In general the singing and playing is rather good. In particular Monika Mauch, Hans Jörg Mammel and Ulrich Maier stand out in portraying their characters. I wondered why Franziska Gottwald is listed as a mezzosoprano, since she sounds more like a deep contralto. The part of Gwissulda is quite low; in a live performance in the Holland Festival of 1975 this part was sung by a high tenor.
I was also puzzled by the parts of Ehrelob and Reichimuth in the third scene of the first act. I am sure that the words of Reichimuth are sung here by Hans Jörg Mammel and the words of Ehrelob by Armin Gottstein (out of touch with the cast, because of his unstylish vibrato). The only solution I can think of is that in this recording the words of Reichimuth have been given to Ehrelob and vice versa, although the libretto in the booklet gives the lines to the characters as indicated in the original. As far as the content is concerned it doesn't make any real difference, but I would have liked to read something about it in the liner notes, which are otherwise very informative.

In regard to repertoire this is a very important recording, and one wonders why it has taken so long before this work has been recorded. And as far as I know it is hardly ever performed, although I am sure it would make a very good piece of theatre. From that perspective it is disappointing that the interpretation is good, but not entirely satisfying. With a little more flair and imagination it could have been much better. And it is also a shame that some cuts have been made. Perhaps the attention Seelewig deserves will only come through a staged performance on DVD.

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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