Opera in two acts. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes.
So here is something different. I’ve done Eastern European operas before, Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, even Ukrainian and Slovenian, here is an opera in Serbo-Croatian. Incidentally it is the first opera in Serbo-Croatian but before you put on your Yugoslav nationalist hat this opera is also an intriguing testament to how artificial ethnicity is. The composer was not an ethnic Croat, nor even of South Slavic origin. He was a German Jew born Ignatius Fuchs, albeit he was born in Zagreb, which I suppose accounts for something. The librettist, Dimitrija Demeter, was an ethnic Greek Orthodox Christian born to a merchant family in Zagreb. So neither the composer nor the librettist of the first opera in Serbo-Croatian was an ethnic Croatian, nor even Roman Catholic, nor Slavic, and only one of them was even a gentile! However, they were both members of the Illyrian Movement, a Croatian nationalist movement which sought independence from the Kingdom of Hungry. The first performance of the opera had to be postponed when the lead tenor was shot by the Austrian army during a demonstration in Zagreb.
SETTING: Near Split, the early 15th century. Ljubica (soprano) is the daughter of Prince Velimir (bass) and is engaged to Vukosav (tenor) but loves Obren (baritone). Velimir gets angry with the two men for fighting, barring both from his home. Vukosav has Velimir overhear Ljubica and Obren in the garden courting, forcing his daughter to write a letter to Obren rejecting his love, which prompts him to commit suicide but before he can do so he is captured when twelve hajduks or bandits for hire of South Slav origin in the pay of Vukosav capture Ljubica and Prince Velimir, who admits to Obren that he forced his daughter to compose the letter. Ultimately Ljudevit, Obren’s friend (tenor), who has overheard Vukosav’s plotting with his servant Branko (baritone), comes with an army of peasants and frees the captives after killing Vukosav.
The score is available online here:
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Before the large doors leading to the home and garden of Prince Velimir. (60 minutes)
0: The overture * is rather good and it is suitable mood music (lots of dramatic doom) although nothing about it stands out. It might be Weberian, although I possibly detect some Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn.
14: The opening male chorus (a molitva or hymn of thanksgiving to G-d) sounds a little like atonal Beethoven and is preceded by nearly three solid minutes of orchestral music after the overture concludes. Ljubica (the only female character) comes on to a solid recitative which if not for the obviously Slav vocabulary could have been written by Donizetti. Her cavatina or napjev is on about the same level * and seems to be a derivation of Rossini, Mozart, and Donizetti.
20, 22: The arrival of Obren is followed by a mini-explosion from Ljubica and yet another male chorus, although this time they are accompanied by the women in what turns out to be a rather well developed choral sequence, again a prayer to the Almighty but this time much better as well **. It is quickly followed by a lovely prayer from Obren, also directed heavenward *.
25, 33: The first of two tenor-baritone duets or dvopjev as Ljudevit arrives greeting Obren as a brother (Zdravo brate) and the conversation is placid if a bit dull *, albeit much of it consists of a arioso for Obren. It flowers towards the end with a lovely and melodic passage started by Ljudevit ** which ends in a grand duet with Obren.
38, 45: The second duet starts with the arrival of Vukosav and his confrontation with Obren which starts off strongly and remains so ** with furious duetting as they challenge each other (U boj! To arms!). It is heavily derivative of Donizetti. Ljubica returns, but at first she doesn’t contribute very much as the two men duel over her other than begging them to stop (Prestanite!) Another passage for Obren ** as we roll into more duetting to basically the same tune as the first half of the duet with interjections from the soprano at intervals.
47: The arrival of Velimir temporarily gives the proceedings a noble air *** and a happy nature tune from the woodwinds. Very Mozartean and possibly the best number so far in the opera. The two rivals continue to quarrel.
52: The act finale *** involves all six principles and male chorus, much of it is a cappella including a coloratura flourish from Ljubica. Velimir bans the two men from his house because of their fighting over his daughter. Vukosav declares a blood feud against both Velimir and Obren. A well constructed end to the act.
ACT 2: (69 minutes)
Scene 1: The Garden of Prince Velimir’s home.
6, 9: The act starts off with two recitatives, one for Obren alone which then turns into a dialogue with Vukosav when he arrives. The first number is an aria for Ljubica * which is sweet but heavily derivative of Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini (note particularly the usage of the flutes). The galop towards the end improves the situation **.
10: Obren comes on and expresses himself in a very melodic recitative *.
13: Vukosav has Prince Velimir spy on his daughter as she comes on for her rendezvous with Obren. A gorgeous quartet ensues ** as the lovers declare their love while the father seethes with anger and Vukosav clandestinely is amused with himself in respective ariosos.
18, 21: Vukosav plots gleefully in a good aria **. He and Branko tiptoe about in a conspiratorial way to a lot of pseudo-Mozart Mickey-Mousing *, andante *, and fury **.
27: A furious arioso for Vukosav as he declares he does all these vile things out of his passion for Ljubica *. It is revealed at the end that Ljudevit has overheard everything, thus setting in motion the events leading to the final curtain.
Scene 2: Another part of the estate of Prince Velimir, below Ljubica’s chambers.
33, 39: A dapper cantabile ** of Obren (notice the muted trumpet) as he awaits word from Ljubica. A letter drops from her window, he reads it, and everything goes to heck for him. Vukosav briefly comes on. And then Obren goes very heroic on us **.
42: Ljubica and her father are taken prisoner by Vukosav and his Hajduk mercenaries and he gloats *.
45: Chorus of the Hajduks **, starts with a long orchestral introduction.
51, 55: The quintet con coro is a little confused * although it has some good ideas, namely Ljubica’s melody, but the men (especially the bass and baritones) are crowded around at the bottom and it seems a little garbled. The Hajduks have another outing, this time involving operatic laughter. After another recitative for Vukosav we get more Hajduk chorus, this time far more agitated *.
57: Vukosav has one last bit of gloating ** with the help of his Hajduk.
59: Ljubica brings in the ten minute finale ensemble ***.
63: Ljudevit arrives with his band of peasants and they defeat the Hajduks and Ljudevit kills Vukosav after he attempts to stab Ljubica with a knife ***.
66: In the last three minutes we get a lush prayer to the Almighty *** which feels like it is based on the final chorus of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, also incidentally the female choral singers have returned.
I had originally expected not to like this opera but I was greatly surprised by the high quality of the music. Although the score is very derivative (basically this is what Donizetti would sound like if he had ever written a Croatian opera and then borrowed some techniques from Bellini and Weber), it is very well constructed derivation. The libretto, or rather the plot, is really not all that captivating, and extremely slow. The letter is a rather contrived plot device that makes the proceedings smell a bit too much of Luisa Miller, but it is also basically the only plot device! Although Vukosav is the villain, he isn’t really all that wicked, and he comes off oddly comedic at times. The fact that he is the tenor and Obren (the romantic lead) is sung by a baritone is rather intriguing. Ljubica and the other characters are rather standard stock though. There really isn’t much story here, it is a standard triangle complicated by the presence of the girl’s father and the fact that the friend of the hero (rather than the hero) saves the day when the rejected suitor captures the main characters. It was fun to use some of my limited Serbo-Croatian in this entry, those lessons paid off to some extent! I must admit that Croatia did a much better job with its first operatic outing than Serbia did, although admittedly they had help from a Jewish composer and a Greek librettist! Definitely not an alpha, but surely a B+.