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The graphic in the score of an Operetta

It is an interesting coincidence that the birth and development of modern operetta appeared during a renaissance in graphic arts and a renewed taste for “art nouveau.” At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth, every treatment of graphic art became a subject of great interest: from posters and books, to magazine ads and postcards, down to the covers of libretti and music scores. It was natural that the most successful melodies and songs of the “belle époque” would be publicized this way, greatly contributing to the development of this new branch of illustration.

The covers were the natural place to make the printed scores as attractive as possible: they had to be charming and communicate clearly overall. And so today we admire not only what’s between the covers of these works, but also small these masterpieces of imaginative expression and graphic composition.

At the time, the two great graphic illustration houses in Italy were the “Ricordi Graphic Workshop” followed by the “Lombardo Music Publishing Firm”—the latter distinguished for the particular and almost unique approach to the marketing and production of operetta.

On the covers of Lombardo’s operettas the most recurring subject is the female figure, usually the main character of the story. Take for example the cover to the score of “The Dance of the Dragonflies:” a man in a tail-coat and a large cloak, a top hat and unfailing monocle, seems to invite us in to the show. This establishes a person in the foreground representing his time, his social status and his way of living. The black area of his suit stands out in high contrast from the fiery red background, and cutting through this
design, a white window shape opens, revealing a flight of dragonflies. This flight evokes the story’s dream, but also a transformation from everyday life. The open windows seem to be the way to get to this dreamland, but in the foreground there is always daily life and the sense of duty, which characterized this century, marked by progress and innovation.

Using only three colors, a deep expressive value, and only one figure, the anonymous graphic artist succeeded in expressing one of the most emblematic images of the epoch as well as the man of the “belle époque.”

These covers illustrated their time, and were a new and unusual art form that appeared thanks to the gay world of operetta. In 1926, the cover for “Gigolette” signed by the artist Ramo, seemed to announce the news.

Many famous graphic artists worked for Carlo Lombardo, who was the sole Italian agent for many foreign music publishing companies. Trombin and Dudovich put their signatures on the cover of “The Land of Bells” in 1923;

Mario Brogg on “Cin-ci-là” in 1925; Bianchi on “Luna Park;” there were Reni, Violi, and other masters as well. Unfortunately, all the plates and lithographic stones used to make these works of art, so jealously guarded in their time, were destroyed when the office was destroyed by an aerial bombardment in 1944.

These late “belle époque” modernist designs leave behind the rigor of the 19th century, and close it out employing highly descriptive forms using vivid chromatic effects. Woman is no longer idealized and sublimated, but represented as being in an ambiguous, exasperating, contemporary reality.

After the war, symbols and colors in operetta artwork began to tell a new story, representing a new history: there appeared more blank spaces filled with color, or plain typographic designs representing an impoverished reality, without ornament. Perhaps we will return one day to our theatrical origins and will have expressive multi-colored covers again, representing a new fusion of music and poetry, of word and rhythm.
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