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Caruso and "Vecchia Zimarra"

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 $20,000.

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 offering:

"During a performance of La Boheme in Philadelphia, Segurola, the basso, who was about to sing the "Coat Song" ("Vecchia Zimarra"), turned to Caruso and whispered "I’ve lost my voice". Caruso replied, "You just stand still and move your lips and I’ll sing it for you". And so, with his back turned to the audience, Caruso sang the aria for Segurola. Segurola then acknowledged 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 valuable!