When The Man in the Plaid Shirt learned of my interest in songs about clothing, he offered a brilliant suggestion: “Tell them,” he said, “about the coat aria in La Bohème. Puccini was good at everything. Surely he had something worthwhile to say about coats.”
Oh my, yes—bidding a tearful goodbye to a coat makes perfect sense in the Sturm und Drang world of opera, with its tales of wildly dysfunctional love, fulminating madness, monstrous revenge, monumental cruelty, heartbreaking tenderness, and all-around self-indulgent hyper-emotionalism. (My dears, that’s why the pedestrian versions of adults behaving badly are called soap operas).
See, here’s what happens in La Bohème : A bunch of young artists and writers—the bohemians of the title—are having a glorious time being poor and rebellious together in 1830s Paris. People fall in and out of love, artistic success, and jealousy, but the whole thing is a joyous romp until a freezing cold February night when the frail little seamstress Mimi, lover of the poet Rudolfo, finally succumbs to tuberculosis (those drafty garrets in the Latin Quarter, you know).
Poor Mimi needs help, but her friends haven’t a franc amongst them. What to do? But of course! Rudolfo will stay with Mimi, warming her poor icy little hands in his, while their friends Musette and Colline [koh-LEE-neh], the student of philosophy, depart on a mission of mercy: Musette will sell her earrings and Colline, his coat, and they will use the money to buy a muff and medicine and a doctor for Mimi.
But before they depart, Colline sings “Vechhia Zimarra, Senti,” his goodbye to the coat that has seen him through many a bright day and long night:
Listen to me, old coat.
I’m staying behind, but you’ll go on to greater heights.
I give you my thanks
You never bowed your worn back to the rich or powerful
You sheltered the works of poets and philosophers in your pockets.
Now those happy days are over.
Farewell, my faithful friend.
Of course we know he’s really saying farewell to that lovely time of life when we are old enough to be free of both the constraints of childhood and the yoke of full adulthood—that intense time of burgeoning worldliness mixed with peculiar innocence, that beautiful interregnum!
Well, to get back to the story, in true O. Henry “Gift of the Magi” fashion, Musette and Collline return with the doctor, muff, and medicine to discover that Mimi has died in their absence. Whip out the handkerchief, ring down the curtain.
You can find lots of clips of stars singing “Vechhia Zimarra,” but you must listen to James Morris. Good opera is about fine acting, not just great singing, and you will see it here, even though you must try hard to ignore the bizarre fact that in this particular staging he looks more like a Neanderthal than a penniless young philosopher. Wrap yourself in his lovely voice, as he once wrapped himself in his dear old coat, and watch for the exquisite moment when he slips his hand in the pocket where once he carried books of philosophy and poetry. And then—oh, then—see him touch his lips to the cuff in a gentle kiss.
Have you told your coat you love it lately?
Categories: Fashion & Music