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Sunday, 7 November 2010

Croatian National Theatre Opera Celebrates 150th Anniversary

This news item is from a few months ago, but still deserved to be mentioned before the anniversary year is over. When I was there last, I didn't get a chance to see any performance and it wasn't on my list anyway, but I did take cool photos of the exterior and got a chance to admire the architecture and artwork of the building and surrounding area. If I spent the whole summer there then I would probably have gone to check out one of the various performances. This particular opera written by Ivan Zajc is named Nikola Šubić Zrinski

Related: croatian-national-theatre-zagreb-bears-hockey



The official site of the Croatian National Theatre:


A performance of Ivana pl. Zajc's opera Nikola Šubić Zrinski, directed by Krešimir Dolenčić, marked the 150th anniversary of the Croatian National Theatre Opera in Zagreb. Croatian National Theatre Opera in Zagreb. This revival of the most performed Croatian opera went hand in hand with the celebration of the 150th anniversary of this theatre house and also kicked off the season.

A scene from the opera.

Some footage from Zajc's opera "Nikola Šubić Zrinski".

The premiere performance of this opera, in Zagreb in the year 1876, as Jagoda Martinčević notes in the programme, is a patriotic hallmark of Croatian opera. "Like a link through generations, Zajc's Zrinski has followed its own path through decades in which its value has often been a benchmark to test expert criteria, while still retaining, throughout its long history, a patriotic symbolism of incontrovertible attachment to Croatian culture," she writes.

Composed to a libretto by Hugo Badalić, Zajc's Nikola Šubić Zrinski has made the journey from initial objections to its "Italianised melody," through labelling as a nationalistic opera, to its final general acceptance. It has been performed at Zagreb's Croatian National Theatre house over 600 times. In bringing to life a moment in Croatian history and one of its most prominent figures, Zajc skilfully contrasts two worlds, the Western and Eastern, Croatian and Turkish, Count Zrinksi and Sultan Suleiman, not losing from sight even for a moment the patriotic signum of the entire work. In this context Count Zrinksi and Fort Siget stand as one of the symbols of the Croatian people, threatened from two sides — from the East by the belligerent Turks, and from the West by the intrigues of the courts in Vienna and Hungary.

 A poster from the Zagreb premiere and very first performance of Zajc's 
" Nikola Šubić Zrinski" opera from 1876.

In this interpretation of the opera, directed by Krešimir Dolenčić (and premiering in Zagreb in 1994), the conductor's baton was taken up by Josip Šego, set design was by Dinka Jeričević, and wardrobes by Ika Škomrlj and Dženisa Pecotić. The role of Count Nikola Šubić, in a performance earning frequent applause, was played by Vitomir Marof, the part of his wife was sung by Ivana Boljkovac, Suleiman was brought to life by Goran Jurić, the arrogant Grand Vizier Sokolović by Stjepan Franetović, with supporting roles performed by Valentina Fijačko, Domagoj Dorotić, Marko Mimica and others.

The high point of Zajc's opera, highlighted by director Dolenčić, and further intensified by the performances of Marof and Franetović, is the meeting between Zrinski and Sokolović in the second act, in which the Turkish vizier offers the Croatian count the royal crown in exchange for the keys to Siget, an offer Zrinski rejects, saying "To the Croats the Ban is King, he rules in his stead."

Sonja Kastl brings the Turkish atmosphere to life with her choreography of Arabic and oriental dances, while the closing scene of the fall of Siget and the desperate last charge in the shadow of the news of the death of the count's daughter earned the unrestrained applause of the audience and ovations after yet another interpretation of this age-old work.

(Vjesnik - Vedran Jerbić,

(Since already on the topic, I might as well add that there are a number of similar theatres/opera/ballet houses in Croatia, a surprising amount actually considering the size of the country is not huge, and some of the theatre groups and opera/ballet ensembles have a history going back to the 17th century, some of the earliest ones to appear in Europe. (Incredible but true, even at the same time that the Ottoman muslim jihads were taking place, the arts were also a form of warfare and morale builder). However, some of the other more classic theatre/opera/ballet houses in the country (like seen in those 17th-19th century era themed movies about composers and musicians etc) are the Croatian National Theatre in Split which opened in 1893, there's a nifty virtual tour at the link also. As well as the Croatian National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc in Rijeka which opened in 1885, the Croatian National Theatre in Osijek which opened in 1866, the Croatian National Theatre in Šibenik built in 1870, the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin which opened in 1873, and of course the Marin Držić City Theatre in Dubrovnik built in 1865 and which also stages numerous Croatian productions and other well known international programs throughout the year, and that's just to name a few. (these classic pre-20th century theatre houses at times also perform modern plays and other performances throughout the year)

A rare view of the Croatian National Theatre building in Zagreb grand opening in 1895.


1. In the prolific opus of the Croatian composer Ivan Zajc, 87 works were written for the musical stage, and 27 of these were operas: 22 finished and 5 unfinished. Zajc started out by composing them after Italian librettos (La Tirolese, Milan 1855), and went on to compose (apart from using Italian texts) after German librettos (Die Hexe von Roissy, Vienna 1866); after his arrival in Zagreb he almost exclusively used Croatian texts. He characterized these as »opera« (e. g. Adelia), »musical drama« (e. g. Ban Leget) or »musical tragedy« (e. g. Nikola Šubić Zrinski), »sung musical allegorical drama« (e. g. Prvi grijeh; The Original Sin), »legend« (e. g. La dea della montagna ovvero i minatori), »concert opera« (e. g. Postolar i vrag; The Cobbler and the Devil), »musical stage-play« (e. g. Seoski plemić; The Country Squire) and »musical theatre« (e. g. John Bull). The fact that he used almost the entire range of possible characterizations for his works is clear evidence of the composer's refined sense for the specific nature of the content and expression inherent in this musical form for the stage.

2. The fact that the composer found himself to be best at home in this area of musical expression from the very beginning of his (official) embarkation in this field is borne out by the review of the first performance of his graduation work which was published in the Milan newspaper La Fama:

Zajc's music is original, spontaneous, clear and proper with many beautiful, delightful and vivacious themes. We have met an artist who displays his skill especially in sections for the choir. The Finale of the second act proves that he is independent and that he does not imitate the much too difficult forms of the stiff counterpoint composers. In short La Tirolese is a worthy opera whose composer, although a beginner, knows his music, the nature of voices and orchestration and never misuses them. Although he on a few occasions imitates Verdi, we cannot begrudge him that. I would like to point out a number of arias and whole sections, particularly a cavatina, a female duet, a characteristic and vivacious chorus, a tenor aria, and especially the last scenes of the opera in which the composer raises his art to the heights of true emotion and expresses the catastrophe of the drama in very lively colours and with great passion. The audience liked the opera very much and received it with great applause. The description of Zajc (as a composer of operas) in this review can be applied to him, to a large extent, to the whole of his career.

3. Zajc wrote most of his operas in Zagreb. Through his operas he filled the (objective) vacuum in this musical form existing at that time, and - along with the operas of other composers which he performed in Zagreb - educated the audience and became a model for our other composers, as well as expressing his patriotism. This is most clearly borne out in what we may describe as Zajc's »patriotic trilogy«: Mislav, Ban Leget and Nikola Šubić Zrinski, and the last of these three has been recognised by many in Croatia to be a synonym not only for Zajc as a composer but also as a musician.

4. Although Zajc was in most cases much more fortunate with respect to the artistic quality of his librettos than his predecessor Vatroslav Lisinsks, (1819-1854), it was only on three occasions that he had the opportunity to work with really good literary texts, the first occasion being the opera in question. The libretto for Nikola Šubić Zrinski was written (albeit after the drama Zrinyi by the German writer Theodor Körner, 1791-1813) by the poet (and teacher) Hugo Badalić (1851-1900). The libretto abounded not only with action and dynamic twists, but also with fine poetry. Inspired by the text, Zajc - according to his notes on the score - composed the opera in a little over three months: between the 2nd of July and the 10th of October 1876. The premiere was performed after 24 days (4th of November of that same year)!

5. This fact relating to the time-scale of the composition is indeed impressive, even when we take into account that the composer made use of some of his material from the unfinished opera Branković (i. e. his attempt to rewrite it as Čengić-Aga), using substantial material for the composition of the finale of the first scene of the first act, and partially (one four-beat bar) for the introduction to Zrinski's Oath (Act I, scene 3, tempo poco andante). On the other hand, in Nikola Šubić Zrinski he masterfully incorporated two motifs from Ban Leget (1872) and one from Mislav (1870), thus linking these, as we have already noted, into a »patriotic trilogy« which reached its climax in Nikola Šubić Zrinski.

Apart from this connection, we should point out the interrelationship of the themes (Croats in three different periods of history: Mislav, the 6th century /hunger/, Ban Leget, the second half of the 10th century /political unrest/, Nikola Šubić Zrinski, the 16th century /struggle against the Turks/). To this we can add yet another link, one which concerns folk elements in the music: Zajc was led by the intention of »colouring« the three works by native Croat forms of musical expression. In Nikola Šubić Zrinski this can be seen by Zajc's refined use of the Croatian folk melody from Podsused The magpie has a long tail and mottled plumage for composing Jelena's Dream (Act II, scene 7).

We need to draw particular attention to Zajc's use of the leitmotiv, not only in his use of the beginning of his composition for male choir To Arms! from 1866 (composed in Vienna), which appears in full in the finale of the opera, but also in another motif linked with the personality of Suleyman.

6. Nikola Šubić Zrinski is without doubt Zajc's most communicative work. It can be classified as a heroic opera with sections (numbers) which — in the course of three acts (eight scenes) — follow logically in a gradual concentric sequence towards the final tragedy of the brave defenders of Szigeth faced with the Turkish onslaught (1566). The sections are filled with musical commentary which is infused not only with an unusually inspired sensibility (for example, Zrinjski's romance Look yonder, see the town shine), but also with discrete tonal colouring derived from Croatian folk melodic expression (for example, Jelena's subtle lullaby The red rose blossoms), as well as ecstatic pathos (e.g., Zrinjski's and Eva's duet On wings of glory), and impressive monumentality (e.g., the Oath of the town defenders), eastern colour (e.g., the ballet scenes), and the profound investigation of the essence of the human psyche (e.g., Suleyman's arioso before his death). Constantly sympathetic with the fate of protagonists from both camps and taking into account the rules of the stage, Zajc's execution is that of a master of technique who knows how to find adequate tonal solutions to all of his ideas in composition, both subtle (e. g., Jelena's lullaby) and caricatured (e. g., the Turks' chorus Let Allah follow...). By using, as we have already pointe out, the leitmotiv technique in a substantial way Zajc has produced a work which today stands not only as a successful Croatian opera of its time, bu also a work which (along with The Original Sin, quite rightly finds its place among similar contemporary works in other countries.

7. The fact that Zajc himself considered Nikola Šubić Zrinski to be a worthy achievement which can be fittingly staged abroad is also borne out by his correspondence with the Czech politician and writer Josef Vâclav Frič (1829-1891) concerning Zajc's (unsuccessful) attempt to stage the work in St. Petersburg. This idea of staging the opera abroad will be realized only a year before Zajc's death; the opera was performed in Prague in 1913. It would be fitting to see in the years ahead, that Nikola Šubić Zrinski is performed more frequently abroad. Zajc's work indeed deserves such a destiny.

Lovro Županović, PhD.
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