Caruso and "Vecchia Zimarra"
by John E. Rutherford
The September-October 2004 issue of
"Antique Phonograph News" reported
that a copy of "Vecchia Zimarra" (the
"Coat Song") sung by Enrico Caruso had
been offered on Ebay with an opening bid of
This is undoubtedly an interesting and historical
recording. Caruso was a tenor and the aria,
"Vecchia Zimarra" from the opera La Boheme
is for a basso, who sings a song of farewell to
his old coat. Here’s one version (in précis) of
how Caruso happened to sing this aria, as told
by Frances Alda on the reverse side of the Ebay
"During a performance of La Boheme in
Segurola, the basso,
who was about
to sing the "Coat
to Caruso and
lost my voice".
"You just stand
still and move
your lips and I’ll
sing it for you".
And so, with his
back turned to the
sang the aria for
the cheers from the
audience, who didn’t realize that it was Caruso
who had done the singing".
After the performance, Caruso made a recording
of the song, and presented copies to those who
were involved in the performance. I have heard
that only eight copies were made and then the
master was destroyed. In the late 1940’s (I
think), one of these records was found (now this
record would be worth a lot!), and transcriptions
were made from that "original" in many forms
(78rpm and 33 rpm). The record that was offered
on Ebay was the one issued on Victor (#87499
–see the illustrations) with the aria on one side,
and the above explanation of why the record
was made on the other. The story is introduced
by Wally Butterworth and is told by Frances
Alda, the soprano who was on stage when
Caruso sang the "Coat Song".
This record is reasonably hard to come by, but
it doesn’t come under the heading of a great
rarity. For example, a past issue of Nauck’s
Vintage Records (#36) offered the record with a
minimum bid of $25.
The Frances Alda version of what happened
that night in Philadelphia is the version that is
generally accepted, but Caruso also wrote an
account of what happened:
"The poor man (Segurola, the basso) was very
apprehensive as the fourth act approached,
for he had a celebrated aria to sing, "Vecchia
Zimarra". Just before it, I whispered to him,
"How are you feeling?" "Pretty bad", he replied.
"Give me the coat", I said, "and I’ll sing it for
you". To his surprise... I sang it".
This story would indicate that Caruso sang to
the coat just as Segurola would have done, in
which case the audience would have known
who was singing.
So, which version of the story is correct?
Personally, I don’t think it matters. The
important point is that we are lucky to be able
to hear Caruso’s performance of an aria that was
written for a basso, even though the recording is
a bit of an oddity. But that alone doesn’t make
a copy of an "original" record exceedingly