By Ralph P. Locke
The performance generally shows high skill and comfort, which is not surprising given that the work has long been a staple in Croatia: indeed, it is the most performed opera in the entire repertoire of the Croatian National Theater.
Ivan Zauc: Nikola Subic Zrinjski
Kristina Kolar (Eva), Anamarija Knego (Jelena), Aljaz Farasin (Lovro), Robert Kolar (Nikola).
Choir and Symphony Orchestra of the Rijeka Opera / Ville Matvejeff.
PCB 555335 [2 CDs] 116 minutes.
Click on here to buy or hear the beginning of each song.
How wonderful it can be when opera singers really know the language they are singing in (and preferably in front of an audience that is also their mother tongue)! I have mentioned this about a number of operas I have reviewed, such as Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (sung in Italian), Wolf-Ferrari I quatro rusteghi (sung in German), and one of the best and most catchy American operas of the last two decades: The Prince of Players by Carlisle Floyd (based on the play by Jeffrey Hatcher whose film Beauty of the scene has been derived).
Well, so are operas sung in Croatian, even for this critic who does not know a word of the language. I have already reviewed the only Croatian opera house that has had an active life outside its homeland, Ero the Joker, a comic strip about love in a village, on the model of Smetana The traded bride. And here is the first major recording of the other most often played Croatian opera, Nikola ubić Zrinjski, by Ivan Zayc. And, again, it’s performed with a sense of conviction and stylistic correctness that helps the work cross language and cultural barriers. (The translated booklet also helps, of course!)
Ivan Zajc (sometimes spelled Zaytz; 1832-1914) was the leading figure in Croatian musical life at the end of the 19th century: director of the Zagreb opera and professor of piano and voice at the city conservatory. He had studied in Milan and is sometimes referred to, with local pride, “the Croatian Verdi”.
This is of course nationalist hyperbole. Now that I have heard Nikola ubić Zrinjski, I would say he was very capable of writing appealing and short passages and stringing them together, but rarely built a dramatic push over the duration of entire scenes or acts. Music also tends to hit some of the same moods over and over again. I really enjoy the job, and it has held my interest throughout. I just don’t think excessive praise helps his cause.
This opera is cheerful and martial most of the time, especially in the many choral and ensemble numbers). In that sense, he looks a lot like Donizetti and the early Verdi. Try out the number for the Ottoman troops in CD 1 track 6 (“May Allah protect every step you take!”): Moving stuff and, interestingly, free from any exotic style markers.
I highly recommend Nikola ubić Zrinjski to those interested in the dissemination of Western European mores and musical practices (in this case: lyrical traditions mainly associated with Italy and France) to the smaller lands of Europe and other parts of the world . This whole process is not just about Eastern Europe. The increasing professionalization of musical life in Croatia during what is today called the “Zajc era” – trying to elevate musical life to meet international standards while also arousing pride in the world. local history and culture – resembles developments that took place around the same time in places such as Norway (with Svendsen and Grieg) and the United States (with personalities as varied as Bristow, Paine, Dvorak, Macdowell, Ives and Chadwick).
Zajc’s plot Nikola ubić Zrinjski derives from a famous German play by Theodor Körner about the Croatian leader Nikola Zrinjski (also known as Miklós VII Zrínyi, because he could well have been Hungarian) and the famous battle of Szigeth (Szigetvár), during which the combined Croatian and Hungarian forces inflicted severe losses on the invading troops of Ottoman Turkey, sufficient to halt their advance on Vienna. It also helped that the already unhealthy Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, died the night before the battle. (The Ottomans would try again in 1683, besieging Vienna for months until they were repulsed, this time for good, by multinational forces.)
The characters are General Nikola Zrinjski, his devoted and equally patriotic wife Eva, their daughter Jelena, his darling Lovro, Sultan Suleiman, and his emissary Mehmed Pasha. (There is also an Ottoman physician, clearly Jewish, named Levi!) The plot is very episodic, as in some other operas based on political and military struggles (e.g. The Huguenots and War and peace).
In short: Jelena and Lovro want to be together, but her father (Zrinjski) persuades Lovro to do his patriotic duty and join the army in trying to push back the Ottomans. Sultan Suleiman sends Mehmed to ask Zrinjski to return the city. Instead, Zrinjski sets the Old Town on fire and moves his troops to the New Town. Jelena, fearing to be tortured or killed by the Turks, asks Lovro to stab her to death, which he does. His parents, when he tells them, sing, “Oh my God, thank you for taking her gently!
The Turks invade the new city. The opera ends with a large choral number in which the Croats encourage each other in war: “To die for our homeland, oh, what a delight! Fight the enemy! He must, must come down. This number is widely used by Japanese male glee clubs. (Search YouTube for “Zajc U Boj Japan”.)
As the curtain comes down, we see, in a sort of pantomime, Lovro and Zurinjski fall, fight. Eva throws a torch into a powder magazine, causing a huge explosion, and the new town, full of Turkish soldiers, is destroyed.
The performance generally shows high skill and comfort, which is not surprising given that the work has long been a staple in Croatia: indeed, it is the most performed opera in the entire repertoire of the Croatian National Theater (Zagreb). This recording uses the orchestra and choir from Rijeka, Croatia’s third largest city (known in Italian as Fiume), which was also Zajc’s birthplace and early career city.
The biggest gap lies in the roles associated with the two main Ottoman figures. Luka Ortar does not have the many low notes necessary to convey the authority and power of the Sultan. The singer listed here as “Giorgio Surian jr. », Singing the role of Mehmed Pasha, is the son of the famous Giorgio Surian. I very much appreciated the interpretation by the elder Giorgio of the role of the comic strip in Franz von Suppé The return of the sailor. Young Giorgio is not at all at the same level. His voice is fine and wavers on high notes. These two roles thus present themselves as badass of cardboard, considerably weakening the dramatic tension of the work between the Moslem invaders and the Christians defending their homeland.
The other two main roles are played by what I assume to be a married couple: Robert and Kristina Kolar. They sing wonderfully, with richness but almost total control, often shading their voices to express various moods and plot developments. (Oh, how wonderful singers can be when they play in their native language!) The soprano and light tenor who are young lovers Jelena and Lovro are clean and pure (she always, him most of the time). If you are lucky enough to hear Anamarija Knego (from Rijeka) or Aljaž Farasin (apparently from neighboring Slovenia), don’t miss it! Rijeka’s orchestra and choir seem fully above the notes.
The libretto contains an informative, albeit somewhat uncritical, essay praising Zajc’s “almost divinely inspired melodic invention”. Without going so far as to invoke the sky, I agree that the tunes are often quite good, even memorable.
So, all in all, we can be happy with this recording, apparently the first to be widely distributed. (There was a precedent on a Croatian label, run by Milan Sachs.) I can’t help but wonder if other works by Zajc could be even more effective. He spent 7 years writing and conducting German language operettas in Vienna and wrote others in Croatian. His energetic, melodious and good-humored style would seem to suit the operetta perfectly. Several of his operettas are performed in Croatia (in Croatian, maybe translated from German?) But do not seem to have been recorded yet.
Zajc also wrote dozens of sacred works, including fully orchestrated masses. (Croatia is, like Hungary and Poland, a predominantly Catholic country.) Who knows?
Warning: if you are looking for online recording, try the composer’s name followed by “Nikola”. Even if you try to search for “Subic” (without the accents), the search may fail because the ?? on the merchant or library site is displayed as a question mark or other letter. Librarians call this type of research strategy a “workaround.”
Ralph P. Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Six of his articles won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Writing to Music. His last two books are Musical exoticism: images and reflections and Music and the exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in pocket size; the second, also in the form of an electronic book. Ralph Locke also contributes to Guide to American Records and online art magazines New York arts, Opera today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have been published in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary) and in the programs of major opera houses, for example, Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). This review first appeared in Guide to American Records and appears here courtesy.