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A first for me – and perhaps for you, too – a Croatian opera. Composer Ivan Zajc is still a name to be reckoned with in his native land, but his art doesn’t seem to have travelled successfully. Which is a shame as his operatic masterpiece, Nikola Šubić Zrinjski, is well worth a listen. Zajc was not just a composer but a had a finger in virtually every pie in Croatian music in the 19th century: a conductor, teacher and administrator who ran the Croatian Opera in Zagreb. He was one of those people that makes you inherently feel like an underachieving blob as you read the list of their galvanising accomplishments.

Nikola Šubić Zrinjski was a fabled Croatian Ban (noble) who led a suicidal stand against the invading Ottomans at the Siege of Szigetvár in 1566, where he lost the battle but won the war against the invaders (well, postponed it until the Battle of Vienna in 1683). The final chorus ‘U boj, u boj’ (‘To battle, to battle’) was already composed, but a canny Zajc incorporated it into his opera. A good move, as it’s a thumper of a tune and guaranteed to stir the audience into a frenzy (much as the Hungarian composer Erkel’s Bánk Bán sings the great tenor aria ‘Hazám, hazám’ which can still rouse fervent patriotic applause in Budapest). I mention Erkel, as Zajc’s music is not dissimilar, if perhaps a little blunter, with its spirited orchestration and memorable tunes.

Croatian appears to sing naturally, and thankfully there is a libretto to follow – the Act I trio develops into a catchy in 1907 chorus, and there are many such moments. If you have no idea of what to expect consider that Zajc is sometimes known as the Croatian Verdi. Perhaps optimistic, but you can see where the idea comes from. The cast is good – Robert Kolar brings a solid baritone to the title role, everybody is up to their part, and Ville Matvejeff conducts with a firm beat.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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