Friday, October 24, 2014

Off to the Opera on the Wings of Commerce

In the late 18th and early 19th Century, as a direct result of the invention of color printing and chromolithography about 1837 in Europe, the use of the medium for advertising purposes became immediately evident.  Arriving in the United States about 1840, it had a similar effect.
The result was a blizzard of “trade cards,” given away by many companies hawking a wide variety of products.  Among them I find cards that depict opera scene to be among the most interesting.  (See my post of April 13, 2013, “Budweiser Goes to the Opera.”)

I am particularly fond of those issued by the Anheuser Busch Company of St. Louis because of the irreverent way in which these trade cards treat even the most tragic operas.  Thee of their cards show here are largely comedic in their intent.  The first is a take-off of one of my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, “The Mikado.”   In this scene, the scatter-brained and self-absorbed love interest, Yum Yum, is found with her pseudo-Japanese fellow school girls claiming that she is more beautiful than the “flowers that bloom in the Spring, tra-la.”  The beer card, however, has her extolling the blooming hops in Anheuser Beer. 
The following card from the beer-maker is from an operetta called “Boccaccio, or the Prince of Palermo,”  by Franz von Suppe,  a story crafted from the famously ribald Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio.  The card captures a scene from the first act when Leonello, a student is captivated by the smiles and flirtatious ways of a local lass.  Standing laughing in the background is Boccaccio himself who is in danger from jealous husbands of being chased out of town and arrested.  It appears that all three are drinking Budweiser, described as “the magic that none can withstand, for in its sparkle solace is found…”

Other makers of comestibles also used operatic trade cards, but those I have viewed do not spoof the stories.  Chocolat Felix Potin, who gave us the next card, was a French candy maker who included a wide variety of cards in his packaged confections.  This card shows a scene from the first act of Gounod’s “Faust.”  Here Faust is being temped by Mephistopheles (The Devil) to sell his soul to regain youth and the love of the beautiful and chaste.  Marguerita is shown to Faust in an apparition that causes him to agree.  I can find no other Potin opera card which may indicate that it was not a popular topic.
The remaining cards shown here are from the Liebig Company whose “Fleisch Extract” was a concentrated beef extract to provide a cheap and nutritious meat substitute.  It provided two cards that take the Faust story forward into the third act where the rejuvenated Faust is in the process of seducing Marguerita while the wily Mephistopheles leads away her unsuspecting maid.  The passionate duet between the love besotted couple is one of my operatic favorites.

Another favorite is the opera, “Don Giovanni”(Don Juan), with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and an Italian libretto.  It tells the story of Don Giovanni described as a “young, extremely licentious nobleman.”  Much of the story is about his wooing and attempting to bed every attractive woman who crosses his path and eluding with scorn all who attempt to bring him to justice.  In the first act, however, Don Giovanni has made a fatal error by killing in a duel the father of one of his attempted seductions. The slain man is the Commendatore, who has a statue of himself in the graveyard.  Don Giovanni invites him to supper and the statue nods approval.  The rake is doomed.  In the next scene the statue comes, offers Don Giovanni a chance to repent, and when he refuses a chorus of demons surround him and take him down to Hell.  By the way, Faust also ended up there.  Opera often was not kind to its title characters.
A word about Liebig.  Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company was named after Baron Justus von Liebig, the German 19th Century organic chemist who developed the product and founded the company.  The meat extract is a molasses-like black spread packages in an opaque white glass bottle.  It contains only reduced meat stock and salt. By 1875, 500 tons of the extract were being produced and it became a staple for Allied soldiers up and through World War II since it did not need refrigeration and could be used in the field.  

Liebig produced many illustrated advertising products: table cards, menu cards, children games, calendars, posters, poster stamps, paper and — most important — trade cards.  These were often in the form of card sets with stories, historical tidbits, geographic tidbits, and other narratives. The sets usually consisted of six cards, one card included per product sale. Many famous artists were contacted to design those series of cards, which were printed using the last in lithographic processes, including chromolithography.  Opera was the subject of several sets.
Among them was a card depicting a pivotal scene in “Mignon,” an opera by Ambroise Thomas that has both French and Italian librettos.   The setting of the illustration is the courtyard of an inn in a small German town.  Gypsies had been dancing for the populace but one, Mignon, refuses and is threatened with a stick by the cruel Gypsy leader, Jarno.  To her rescue comes a young student, Wilhelm, who pulls a gun on Jarno and rescues Mignon.  Meanwhile the girl is comforted by a white-bearded minstrel named Lothario.  As it often turns out in operas, Mignon and Wilhelm fall in love and Lothario in the final scene is discovered to be Mignon’s father.  
The next card depicts the Wagnerian opera, “Parsifal,” a story that revolves around the Holy Grail, believed to be the cup from which Jesus of Nazareth drank at the Last Supper.  It depicts a scene from Act 2, Scene 1, in which the evil magician, Klingsor, standing left, has loosed a bunch of enchanted knights on the virtuous knight of the Grail, Parsifal.  Parsifal has bested them in combat and they have run away.  The lady is Kundry, a sorceress and vamp who has eyes for Parsifal.  The story makes very little sense but Wagner’s music is some of his best and the opera continues to be frequently performed. 
The final trade card shown here depicts a scene from “Falstaff,” a Verdi opera based on the Shakespeare character who appeared in three of the master’s plays,  “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2” and “Merry Wives of Windsor.”  The plot revolves around the fat rascal, John Falstaff, to seduce two married women in order to get their money.  The picture is of a scene in which a jealous husband has arrived with henchmen to thrash Falstaff who has been hidden by women in a clothes  hamper and almost suffocated.  When the husband hears kissing behind a screen, he thinks it is Falstaff but in reality it is a couple of young lovers.  The madcap antics of this and other scenes, plus Verdi’s music, lifts this to the pinnacle of comic operas. 

The good design and luminous colors of these trade cards are “eye candy” to me and other collectors.   They are made all the more interesting by learning the stories of the operas they    celebrate.  


No comments:

Post a Comment