HISTORY AND TRADITION
The tradition of the continuous theatre life in the city of Rijeka is more than two centuries long. The first theatre building was completed in 1765, however, as it also served other purposes, the construction of a new theatre was initialized at the end of the 18th century. The new theatre was finished and opened for the public by a distinguished citizen and merchant Andrija Ljudevit Adamić in 1805. As a remarkable architectural masterpiece with a classical front view, a big auditorium and three box circles, the Adamich Theatre was the centre of the theatre life in Rijeka (Fiume) for the next eighty years. It provided mainly guest performances from Italy, but sometimes also German opera and theatre companies. However, as in the eighties of the 19th century a few European theatres had been destroyed by fire, safety measures had to be implemented in all the towns of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since the Adamich Theatre did not meet the necessary requirements for a safe functioning, the Rijeka Municipality representative body brought the decision to have the existing theatre building pulled down and a completely new, modern and contemporary one constructed, meeting all the Central European standards. In 1883, when the municipality authorities, headed by the famous mayor Giovanni Ciotta, grandson of the even more renowned Ljudevit Adamić, decided to have a new imposing theatre building constructed, they must have been aware that this action was going to have effect upon the centuries to come. The spacious Ürmeny square was chosen as the venue, while the project was ordered in Vienna, in the architectural studio that specialized in theatres, from the architects Herman Gottlieb Helmer and Ferdinand Fellner. All the main Croatian theatres were built in the second half of the 19th century, the one in Rijeka being the second, after the Osijek one (1865) and before those in Split (1893) and Zagreb (1895).
After long lasting preparations and two years of construction and impatient expectations, it was on the third of October in 1885 that the new Municipality Theatre (Teatro Comunale) was finally opened. Two great operas had been carefully prepared for that festive occasion, namely, Verdi’s Aida and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The first visitors and numerous guests could take pleasure in walking around the imposing theatre building, a masterpiece of architecture of that time, presenting itself in all of its beauty, with impressive statues and ornaments made by the famous Venetian sculptor August Benvenuti and the ceiling painted by the painter Franz Matsch, together with his even more famous brothers Gustav and Ernest Klimt. The two operas were conducted by Gaetano Cimini, while the stars of the evening were popular and much favoured singers, Medea Borelli, Clotilde Sartori and Mary Guttemberg. Everyone could also witness real technological wonders of their time, namely, the first electrical bulb and the first telephone in the town.
Rijeka’s audience had always loved theatre and waited impatiently for new guest performances of their favourite opera and comedy companies from Milan, Venice and other theatre centres. Since its earliest days, Rijeka’s Thalia was visited by numerous famous theatre personalities, such as the young but already famous composers Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni, the latter having conducted his opera Il piccolo Marat, then also the great actress Irma Gramatice, born in Rijeka. The greatest tenor of his time, Enrico Caruso, had a guest appearance in the Rijeka theatre in 1898, while the famous Beniamino Gigli sang in Aida in 1941. Numerous acting stars performed in the theatre, such as Ernest Rossi, Ermeteo Novelli and Ermeteo Zacconi, but the best to be remembered among all was the great tragic actress Sarah Bernhardt, who played with her company in Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias in 1899. The poet and artist Gabriele D’Annunzio paid a visit to the theatre in 1907.
The Rijeka theatre changed its name several times during its rich history. Having been called Municipality Theatre (Teatro Comunale), in 1913 it was renamed to Teatro Verdi, after the greatest Italian opera composer, a logical choice as since its very beginnings it had primarily been an opera house and rightly so according to the preferences shown by its audience. However, due to historical and political circumstances, neither Croatian language nor Croatian artists had access to the theatre until the end of 1945, when, similarly to other permanent national theatrical institutions in the country and abroad, the National Theatre in Rijeka was founded, with the Croatian company as well as the Italian one, also the opera and ballet company. Soon afterwards, the first management was appointed. Another historic date for the theatre followed when on the 20th October in 1946 it was the first time that a play in Croatian language was staged, namely, Dubravka by Ivan Gundulić, directed by Dr Marko Fotez, with Marija Crnobori in the role of Dubravka. Soon the first opera sang in Croatian followed, that is, Nikola Šubić Zrinjski by Ivan Zajc, directed by Boris Papandopulo. Then it was the turn of the play in Italian, ll Burbero benefico by Carlo Goldoni. In 1953, the theatre gets a new name after another composer, this time the greatest Croatian composer and citizen of Rijeka, Ivan Zajc, who already in 1857 conducted Verdi’s Nabucco in this theatre, as well as many other Verdi’s operas later on. It was in 1860 that his own opera Amelia was performed and welcomed with loud ovations by the audience, who thus celebrated both the work and the young Maestro.
IVAN pl. ZAJC
There have not been many examples in recent cultural history of one artistic personality dominating the music of a nation for more than forty years, but this was the case with the composer Ivan pl. Zajc (the pl. in the name was an indication of aristocratic birth) between 1870 and 1916.
Born in Rijeka in 1832, Ivan pl. Zajc began to study the piano and violin when only five years old, while at the age of 12, he began to compose and make his first public appearances. All these were clear indications that the boy would devote his life to music and not to law, as was the wish of his father, a military bandleader. Indeed, in 1850 Zajc entered the Conservatory in Milan with his father’s consent, bringing with himself his first twenty compositions.
As a pupil of the leading Italian composers and teachers as S. Ronchetti-Monteviti, L. Rossi and A. Mazzucata, Zajc took up his studies with the greatest seriousness. The evidence of this is provided by many prizes awarded to him, frequent performances of his works, and, in particular, the offer to stay in Milan, made to him in 1855, on the completion of his studies. But Zajc, whose parents had died in the meantime, returned to Rijeka to become very active as a teacher of the Philharmonic Society, as conductor of visiting opera companies and as a composer. A great success was his opera Amelia (ossia Il Bandito) performed in 1860, but there are also two other operas from that period, Adelia and La sposa di Messina, as well as other compositions, the vaudeville I funerali del Carnevale and compositions dedicated to his home town, Rijeka (Fiume), Die schöne Fiumanerin (La bella Fiumana/The Beautiful Fiuman Woman), I musicisti fiumani (The Fiuman Musicians), Vittoria quadrille – Liepa Riečanka and Fiumaner Marsche. The Mediterranean climate, however, did not seem to appeal to him, and after a prolonged illness he decided to find a more suitable place of residence. Although he still could have found employment in Milan, he chose Vienna as his new home, convinced that his music would be more to the taste of that city.
Indeed, his hopes were not unfounded, for his eight-year stay in Vienna (1862-1870) was marked by a great success in the field of musical comedy. Although Vienna was dominated at the time by the melodies of Strauss, Suppee and Millöcker, Zajc soon made a name for himself, and many of his works for the musical stage – On Board Boys, Fitzli-Putzli, Lazaroni of Naples and, in particular, The Boissy Witch – achieved great popularity.
However, joining the group of Croats rallying round the Croatian Academic Society “Velebit“, Zajc found himself confronted with the alternative between world-fame as a composer of musical comedies and a difficult and responsible duty towards his fatherland. Influenced by Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer and the poets Petar Preradović and Ivan Trnski, as well as August Šenoa, Mirko Divković, young students Ivan Dežman and Franjo Marković, he decided to choose the second alternative. And so, early in 1870, Zajc came to Zagreb to become Director of the Opera and Principal of the School of the Croatian Music Institute. He held his appointment at the opera until 1889, when owing to financial difficulties the organization lapsed for a time, but retained his post at the school until 1908.
In addition to his great activity as conductor and teacher, Zajc was extremely active as a composer. In this period he wrote almost thousand works (from Op. 234 to Op. 1202)! These include the operas Mislav, Ban Leget, Nikola Šubić Zrinjski, Lizinka, Pan Tvardovski, Zlatka, The King’s Whim, The Original Sin, The Girl from the Coast, Galileo Galilei, and Armida, operettas, musical comedies, numerous cantatas, songs and choral compositions, concert and chamber music and works in every field of music.
The importance of Ivan Zajc lies chiefly in the fact that, at a time when there was complete musical stagnation in Croatia, he created a Croatian opera with a modern repertory, and that by his activity as a teacher, he contributed a great deal towards the suppression of the dilettantism which had flourished before. To achieve this was neither a simple nor an easy task.
Zajc died in Zagreb in 1914. In his old age he lived to see the awakening of new forces that were to raise Croatian music to the high artistic level where it stands today. His own share in this awakening was by no means small.
Nikola Šubić Zrinjski, a musical tragedy in three acts (eight scenes), Op.430, is based on the story of the death of Nikola Zrinjski IV at Siget in 1566. The libretto for Zajc’s most successful stage work was written by Hugo Badalić, based on Theodor Körner’s drama Zrinyi.