Back in 1909, when the 45-minute one-act opera Il segreto di Susanna was given its world premiere at the Bavarian Court Theatre in Munich, it was, indeed, regarded as scandalous in society for a woman to smoke. Times have changed, haven't they? So how to update the plot of an opera that deals with a topic that is an utter non-starter in 2021? Why, of course, create a multi-media show!

Heiko Pinkowski (Sante) and Selene Zanetti (Susanna)
© Wilfried Hösl

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari bylined this piece Intermezzo in one act, which deals lightheartedly with – possibly the first – marital crisis when the newlywed husband detects cigarette smoke in the rooms of their new home. Instinctively, he believes his wife is betraying him with another man, leading to wild filmed chases through the many rooms of their elegant Munich villa. The young bride does not deny that there is some hanky-panky going on, even bids forgiveness for her sin, without giving away her secret. Only in the end does she confess that it is she who is smoking, and that there is no one else deserving of her love but her husband.

Selene Zanetti (Susanna), Michael Nagy (Count Gil) and Heiko Pinkowski (Sante)
© Wilfried Hösl

The fact that there are only two singers plus the mute role of the servant suits the pandemic programming quite well – a new production that does not involve so many participants but still brings new material to the Bayerische Staatsoper. Stage director Axel Ranisch places the orchestra on stage, with the dimly lit white-pink-gold of the lovely empty hall forming the backdrop. The action takes place upstage in a space contained by a stylish Persian carpet and with Bauhaus furnishings such as would be found in a posh marriage counsellor's practice. Katarina Ravlic and Christian Blank sign for the decor and costumes, which place the action in the present day. Ranisch expands the mute role of the servant Sante to be marriage counsellor and confidante to both husband and wife. It is a role embodied by actor Heiko Pinkowski as a dishevelled teddy bear of a man, with oversize black-rimmed glasses and a cuddly red jumper. He takes the audience from the real stage into the pre-produced videos of the new home of the newlyweds, where the pantomimed altercations and Feydeauesque slapstick take place. The vaped smoke from e-cigarettes is omnipresent, emanating from suspicious cupboards and innocent flower arrangements, adding little to the plot, however. Even the menage à trois finale – with all three characters united blissfully, smoking under bedcovers – lacks the elegance and lightheartedness expressed in the music.

Selene Zanetti (Susanna) and Michael Nagy (Count Gil)
© Wilfried Hösl

It is the two singers who lifted the production from this chaotic approach. Selene Zanetti sang Countess Susanna, the seductive young wife who drives both men crazy with her innuendoes of having sinned. There was a transfigured intensity to her opulent soprano with which she praised the delights of tobacco in an aria, making the irony of this piece float, light and fleeting as the blue haze itself. Michael Nagy's dark baritone gave his Count Gil considerable dramatic pitch. The natural heaviness of his voice made his suspicions seem desperate and wrought with hysteria.

Conductor Yoel Gamzou tried to underscore the elegant cantilenas and sharp-tongued comments, but many were surely lost in the flood of images and quick cuts from stage to film and back again. All this alternating action on stage and on screen, unfortunately, concealed any musical gems, reducing Wolf-Ferrari's score to a soundtrack. Less would have been more.


This performance was reviewed from the Bayerische Staatsoper TV live video stream