202. Nikola Šubić Zrinjski (Zajc)

  • Musical tragedy in 3 acts
  • Composer: Ivan Zajc
  • Libretto: Hugo Badalić, after Körner’s play Zriny
  • First performed: People’s Theatre, Zagreb, 4 November 1876

SETTING: Belgrade, Szigetvár, and the Turkish camp, 1566.


Nikola Šubić ZrinjskiCroatian ban, commander of SzigetvárBaritone
EvaHis wifeMezzo soprano
JelenaTheir daughterSoprano
Lovro JuranićJelena’s fiancé, officer in SzigetvárTenor
Gašpar AlapićOfficer in SzigetvárBass
Vuk PaprutovićOfficer in SzigetvárTenor
Suleiman the MagnificentTurkish emperorBass
Mehmed SokolovićGrand VizierTenor
MustafaBosnian pashaTenor
Ali PortukArtillery commanderBaritone
Ibrahim Begler-Beg Bass
LeviSuleiman’s doctorBaritone
Timoleon Baritone
Osmanka Soprano
Sokolica Soprano
Mejra Soprano
Fatima Alto
Zulejka Alto

Nikola Šubić Zrinjski is the Croatian national opera, depicting a heroic last stand that saved Europe from the Turks. It is full of speeches to the effect that Croats are always ready to fight for freedom, to shed their blood for their homes and their kin, and to die for homeland, faith, and king. But there is much here for the non-Croat to enjoy. Zajc’s score is consistently well-written: emphatic, military, heroic when the situation demands, soaringly lyrical at others. It is a work of considerable dramatic power, moving inexorably towards tragedy.

The opera involves the Siege of Szigetvár (Battle of Szigeth), in which a Habsburg force of 2,300 men held off an army almost one hundred times bigger; Cardinal Richelieu called it “the battle that saved civilisation”.

The ageing Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66), who presided over the golden age of the Ottoman Empire, is dying. Knowing his end is nigh, he determines to achieve one last feat of glory: to capture Vienna, bastion of Christendom against the Ottoman Empire, with 200,000 men. The fort of Szigetvár (Szigeth), in Hungary, stands in his way, protected by the Croatian hero Zrinjski, who has sworn an oath with his family and soldiers to defend the town with their lives. Suleiman offers Zrinjski a chance to surrender the fort and save the lives of his men, even to become king of Croatia; the general refuses. The wall of the new town falls to Turkish fire; Zrinjski knows he cannot stop the next attack, so resolves to burn the new town and retreat to the old. The vizier Mehmed again asks for his surrender; Zrinjski’s son has fallen into their hands, and will be tortured to death; Zrinjski once more refuses. Suleiman dies, knowing that his troops have been driven back; Mehmed takes power, and vows to defeat Zrinjski before returning to Istanbul. The Croatians know they cannot win; in a moving scene, Zrinjski’s daughter Jelena is stabbed by her lover Juranić to save her from becoming a Turkish prize. Zrinjski’s wife Eva resolves to die with her husband, and Zrinjski leads the Croats in a suicidal last stand against the Ottomans.

The most famous number in the score is the ensemble finale, ‘U boj, u boj!’, which began as a patriotic piece performed for the anniversary of the Siege in 1866. The choruses are one of the glories of the work: the Ottoman chorus at the end of Act I scene 1; the military chorus and oath in Act I scene 3. Note also an excellent trio and quartet in Act I scene 2; Zrinjski’s farewell to the town in Act II; and the tragic duet of the lovers in Act III.

Zajc’s opera was enthusiastically received; critic August Šenoa (Vijenac, VIII, 1876, 4 November) wrote: “We can’t find enough words to express our joy that this new musical work by a local composer has happily succeeded according to the unanimous judgment of the critics and the audience. Zajc experienced a beautiful glory on that day… The audience greeted him with a real storm.” The work was performed in Croatian theatres more than 1,317 times by 1990, and 609 times in Zagreb alone by 1992. Composer Boris Papandopulo said: “There are operas, and there is Zrinjski.”


Robert Kolar (Nikola Šubić Zrinjski ); Kristina Kolar (Eva); Anamarija Knego (Jelena); and Aljaž Farasin (Lovro Juranić), with the Rijeka Symphony Orchestra and  Rijeka Opera Choir conducted by Ville Matvejeff, Croatian National Theatre “Ivan Zajc”, Zagreb. CPO 2020.


One thought on “202. Nikola Šubić Zrinjski (Zajc)

  1. Thank you so much for this! Also, your devotion to great opera beyond those by the usual suspects. One of the great Hungarian operas to explore is Bánk bán by Ferenc Erkel. There are several recordings, but the only one I have listened to is the one conducted by János Ferencsik. Compelling drama, gorgeous music.


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