Ivan Zajc: Nikola Subic Zrinski (1876)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

THE Croatian National Opera (there really isn’t another one quite so famous) is set during one of the most bloody battles of the Ottoman-Hapsburg Wars between 3,000 Hungarian-Croatian forces and 100,000 invading Ottoman troops. A pyrrhic victory, the Ottomans did wipe out the Hungarians and take Szigetvar fortress, but around 30,000 were killed, included 3,000 just in a booby trap set on the order of Zrinski: the entirety of the powder magazine under the fortress had been on a slow fuse for hours before.

SETTING: Belgrade and Szigetvar, 1566. Suleyman the Magnificent (bass) plans to take the last Croatian fortress on the way to Vienna, Szigetvar, which is commanded by Nikola Zrinjski (baritone), but he has some secret political opposition from Mehmet Sokolovic (tenor). Meanwhile, Jelena (soprano) the daughter of Zrinski and his wife Eva (mezzo-soprano) is in love with Lovro Juranic (tenor) one of the officers, but their marriage will never be.


ACT 1: (57 minutes)

Scene 1: The chambers of Sultan Suleyman, Belgrade.

0, 7, 10, 17: The two-minute prelude * consists of two main themes: the first, which gets reworked in an andante (the intertwining of the strings will sound a little like the prelude of Les Huguenots), and represents Zrinjski. This takes on a military air before everything stops and a second theme comes on but is replaced quickly with the Zrinjski theme in a more allegro format. An Italianate theme starts (which ironically represents Suleyman), then dies, as the curtain rises, then starts up again, dies, and we come upon Suleyman, bemoaning his legacy and desire to destroy the planet and asking his Jewish physician Levi how much time he has left to live. One can notice the golden melody in the background (it is a leitmotif representing death). Levi hesitates, but eventually says around ten more years. Their duet is, although at times of minimal temperature, punctuated with moments of effective lyricism ** Suleyman plans to take Vienna and summons his war council in an aria set to the earlier Italianate theme *. He discusses with his Grand Vizier, Sokolovic, his plan to take Szigetvar, the fortress which blocks his way to Vienna, and its commander, Zrinjski. The scene ends with general militancy from the Muslim generals *.

Scene 2: A Hall in Szigetvar Fortress.

24, 28, 33, 36, 40: Jelena and Lovro say goodbye to each other amid a lot of orchestral angst as he goes to begin military service, it calms down enough for them to embark on a nice patch of more tranquil love music * (the main theme will eventually be developed by Puccini in La Rondine. Jelena then goes into panic mode, certain that death will befall all (she is correct) but thankfully she switches to a more gentle patch for this * before her mother Eva, arrives. It is only when Zrinjski himself arrives to make a trio that the scene starts to take off **. A officer named Gaspar Alapic arrives with reports of the Ottomans, prompting a lively quartet **. Lovro, another officer named Vuk Paprutovic, and soldiers, burst into the hall with warnings of the impending Ottoman attack. Lovro attempts to make a case for marrying Jelena *, Zrinjski says it will happen after the victory over the Ottomans, which has a very early Verdi quality to it. This moves into the ensemble scene closer.

Scene 3: The battlements of Szigetvar.

44, 51, 54: Croatian troops assemble awaiting Zrinjski * to take a collective oath. Eva arrives, demanding that she and Jelena also take the oath to die before being taken captive by the Ottomans. Jelena and Lovro say that they would rather die than end up being separated because of the Ottomans *. The women then leave. Zrinjski then has his men take an oath to die in battle **. This ends the act.

ACT 2: (24 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as Act 1 Scene 1.

0: The obligatory ballet * of odalisques has zero Orientalist pretensions.

7: Suleyman is obsessing with taking Szigetvar, Sokolovic arrives to a grateful melody * which as the tenor he gets to repeat twice. Everything is being prepared for the invasion, and Sokolovic is sent (as a former Serb) to make an ultimatum of surrender to Zrinjski. The scene ends with one more minute of choral-ballet music.

Scene 2: A room in Szigetvar.

14, 20: Zrinjski awaits reports, but his men want to attack. Reporting arrives and he orders everyone out. He then, alone, says goodbye to Szigetvar ** in an affecting aria (mostly from the effect of an ascending scale). Sokolovic arrives with the ultimatum from Suleyman *, which of course is rebuffed. Sokolovic tries to threaten Zrinjski, showing him the hunting horn of his son Djuro, whom we have never seen in the opera but who has been killed by the Ottomans. He calls everyone in in a show of defiance and Sokolovic is booted out before the curtain falls.

ACT 3: (46 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as Act 1 Scene 1.

0, 5, 8, 10: The golden melody (which for some reason Zajc has decided to use to represent death) is stronger now as we come upon the dying Suleyman. Sokolovic returns and speaks to Levi who reports that the Sultan is dying *. Sokolovic warns Suleyman that Zrinjski and the Croats will fight to the death. Suleyman obsesses about Zrinjski * before Sokolovic returns for attack orders. The Death Scene ** is probably the best scene in the entire opera as the orchestra represents as death comes to Suleyman and Sokolovic seizes power **.

Scene 2: The cellars underneath Szigetvar.

14, 19, 29: An orchestral intermezzo is followed by the first of three dialogues involving Jelena which make up almost the entire scene (it is basically an extended scene for soprano). The first * is with her mother as the girl settles down to sleep near the powder keg. Second, an extended dream sequence with a chorus of awful otherworldly feminine spirits (this melody is a modification of the leitmotif for her father). The aria is fine *, but the choral pantomime is a bit dull as Jelena dreams of being married to Lovro. Speaking of Lovro, he arrives and tells Jelena that there is no hope. She tells him that he must kill her ** (wildly anticipated). They some how pull this off by having him hold the knife and she pushes his hand into her heart. There is so little build up to this. He then flees the scene to die in battle against the Muslims.

Scene 3: The Battlements.

35, 41: The scene starts off with yet another restatement of the Zrinjski leitmotif. The Croats receive absolution before certain death. Zrinjski and Eva prepare for the battle **: Eva is to light the powder keg and blow the fortress to Kingdom Come. Lovro arrives with the news that Jelena is dead. The finale ** consists of the troops assembling, Eva going off to lit the fatal fuse, and the Croats singing the most famous part of the score (which ends up breaking the fourth wall). The opera ends in an entirely orchestral postlude.


This is my second attempt at reviewing this opera. It is possible that viewers may have noticed that I initially released my thoughts on this work back in late 2020, but it was quickly deleted (which I otherwise never do) and I destroyed the original review. One major difference is that the original opener had a history section around three times the length of the current opener. Then, in May 2021 and June 2022, I went back and reviewed the opera again, based on a different recording and production. I then held it back until now and just finished up this paragraph in a few minutes ago. This one is unusually difficult for me to work with.

Theatrically, the work is barely able to carry itself, because it is uneven. There are times when the score benefits from its brevity (none of the scenes last longer than 20-25 minutes) as much of the score is just plainly boring. But this also makes glaringly obvious the fact that the opera is episodic and lacks much character development beyond its surprisingly complex leitmotif system (more on this below). Overall, the best scene is the first scene of act three, with the death of Suleyman.

In terms of style, the opera is a composite of different concepts, at times it is mimicking Meyerbeer, then Verdi, then Weber (the usage of horns) and although these are effectively executed and style-blending is hardly something I usually take points off for, there is little to any originality or inspiration in the score. There are snatches of good and even great melody here and there, but they move more quickly than in Falstaff and hardly satisfy. I keep feeling that I have heard it before somewhere else, in a language other than Croatian! This is essentially the Slavic equivalent of a Meyerbeer grand opera, but in three acts instead of five, and without the cultural sensitivity of a libretto by Eugene Scribe. It even has a gratuitous ballet in the second act! The love story is weakly drawn and rather uninteresting, even with the tenor killing the soprano (Jelena is probably the most weakly drawn of all of the major protagonists) in order to save her from a fate worse than death, nor is Eva particularly strong, although Zrinjski comparatively is. Suleyman is probably the best executed of the characters, even if he is a horrible person bent on destroying the planet by subjugating it to Mohammedanism.

It is also equal to many Wagner operas in its usage of leitmotif technique: there are distinct melodies for Zrinjski (doubling with Croatian patriotism), Suleyman (which for me started to get annoying because of how frequently it is played), Jelena (a modification of the Zrinjski motif), Sokolovic (who is possibly able to steal the show in spite of the size of the role), and the concepts of war (a modification of the Zrinjski) and of death (the Golden Melody, which I would disagree with, but at least Zajc took the time to utilize it somewhere). A reason from the uninteresting nature of the score might be that the singers at the Zagreb Opera who created the work were not vocalists of a high calibre, requiring Zajc to rely on stock effects and orchestration rather than florid vocal display. But overall, its fame does seem to rest solely on its ending war choruses pregnant with Croatian nationalism. These static speeches are alas also the great downfall of the work. A gamma personally, although others might grade it higher.

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