Thursday, April 27, 2006

Skip this if you're not interested in La Boheme :)

“Vecchia Zimarra”

Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme has been hailed as the greatest operatic work of all time. Set in and around the Latin Quarter, it is the account of the adventures of a close-knit bank of Parisian artists cheerfully enduring all the hardships and privations customarily dictated by their career choices. Reading of Puccini's life, one can easily see how the composer was reminded of his own student days in Milan where he too underwent the Bohemian period so traditional among struggling young painters, poets-and musicians. He too once matched wits with avaricious landlords and sharp-eyed tavern keepers, and staving off frostbite and hunger pangs with liberal doses of watered wine and bean stew, passed his free hours playing cards with his fellow garreteers danding with shop girls, boasting of great futures not yet secured and falling in and out of love dozens of times. That hardly a false note sounds as the music of La Boheme evokes the high-spirited camaraderie of the opera's protagonists and illuminates their joys, sorrows, hopes and dreams owes much to Puccini's intimate acquaintance with that way of life. Knowledge of what is true and untrue to the heart of the Bohemian enables Puccini to perfectly portray the Bohemian ideals near the end of Act IV of La Boheme with the powerful aria of Colline, "Vecchia Zimarra". Affection for material objects was anti-Bohemian, but in this tightly constructed aria, confessions of appreciation are professed with an understated beauty highlighting the true Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love.

Inspired by Henri Murger's Scènes de la vie de Bohème, Murger took the story from his own experiences as a desperately poor writer living in a Parisian attic. He was a member of a loose club of friends who called themselves "the water drinkers", so named due to never having money to buy wine. Murger based the characters of his story on the people and places of his life. Specifically to La Boheme, Rodolpho is based on Murger himself, Schaunard is Alexandre Schanne, Marcello is based on two artists named Lazare and Tabar, and the character of Colline is made up of Jean Wallon and Marc Trapadoux. Jean Wallon supplied the outward model for Colline, Tabar wrote, "I can still see him as when we were young, with his unkempt chestnut hair under his broad brimmed hat, his long brown coat of coarse cloth, his books under his arm," Schanne adds, "His thin nose, grey-blue eyes, and plump hands, completed one of those envelopes in which mystic souls love to dwell"..."His ecclesiastically-cut coat was stuffed with books at the four cardinal points, each of the pockets bore the name of one of our public libraries....After dining he came to Momus's to philosophize with Trapadoux, another library on two legs." According to Murger, the voluminous pockets of this coat were stuffed full of books and papers, the tools of a philosopher's trade; his coat was his office. This explains why the selling of Colline's coat in order to buy items for the dying Mimi is such a noble and compassionate gesture. By selling his coat, he was not only selling his protection of the ever present cold found in La Boheme, but also selling his very means of function and sustenance as a philosopher in the Bohemian world. The coat is a creative and professional necessity for him. He addresses the coat with the respect and regard befitting its importance in his life.

This duty as purveyor of idealism is thrust upon the audience almost as an afterthought only in Act IV revealing what Colline's true purpose in the opera is. In Act I he is nearly the comic relief of the libretto. He exchanges with Rodolfo and Marcello about the sparkling quality of the burning play. As Marcello comments on the lack of voice as the second act of the play burns, Colline in Philosopher character replies, "Profound Thought!” further in the exchange he pronounces, "What a vain, fragile drama!". These declarations are a hint to the cloaked perfection of representation of what the Bohemian Philosopher was. While on the surface his exchanges may seem comical or obtuse, in reality, his words are an accurate yet simplistic portrayal wonderfully presented. Throughout the opera, when Colline is on stage, he is the voice of the true Bohemian. This voice is heard most clearly in his aria, "Vecchia Zimarra".

Consider Vecchia Zimarra below:

Vecchia zimarra, senti, il resto al pian,
tu ascendere
il sacromonte or devi.

Le mie grazie ricevi.
Mai non curvasti il logoro
dorso ai ricchi ed ai potenti
Passar nelle tue tasche.

come in antri tranquilli filosoci e poeti,
Ora che i giorni lietl fuggir, ti dico addio,
fedele amico mio,
addio, addio.

Faithful old garment, listen,
I'll rest down here
you however, must climb
the sacred mount of piety.

My thanks you must receive.
Never has your poor worn back
bowed before the rich and

Deep in your calm cavernous
You have protected
philosophers and poets.

Now that our happy days
have fled, I must bid you
faithful friend of mine. Farewell, farewell.

In the translation of the first stanza, "Faithful old garment" relays esteem for the physical coat, as well as everything the coat represents to this man who
chooses to live a life with little or no possessions. The choice of the term "faithful" can be read as the garment's performance to its owner, but also as the owner's regard for the garment. On a wider observation, one could argue that the word "faithful" is also an accurate testimonial for Colline and his dedication to his art. As we have read, he is forever with his books, viewed as the group's library of resource and knowledge, stating simply what is right, and what is simply true.

"I'll rest down here...” the second line of stanza one is Colline's admission that letting go of his faithful friend is the end of a journey. He shares that this sacrifice, while being the right thing to do, is exhausting of his only personal comfort. Once this sacrifice is made, he will pause, and rest, to reflect and remember.

Continuing with stanza one, "you however, must climb the sacred mount of piety." He is warning the coat of the journey about to be undertaken. In Colline's sacrifice, it is his coat that now must make the sacred journey. The coat must make the journey beyond, and carry on. However, in this statement of divine duty, Puccini carefully chooses the term, "Sacro monte". Sacro monte translates to sacred mountain, but sacro monte is also Italian slang for "pawn shop." It is to the pawn shop, or sacro monte that Colline's coat will go to help Mimi in her last moments.

The first line of stanza two reads, "My thanks you must receive." Gratitude simply expressed to a dear friend. It's as if the value Colline has placed on his coat would enable the clothing to refuse what he is offering. There is no room for debate; his thanks just must be received. Thanks for what and who the coat has been to him, as well as thanks for all the coat represents to the Bohemian Philosopher. Thanks for taking on the role of carrier of knowledge, thanks for protecting the deliverer of exchange, thanks for being available to serve its role in the sacrifice of the selling.

The second line he begins by saying, "Never has your poor worn back..." He is not only addressing the bared thread of the back of the coat, but also the burden carried by his coat. While the garment may be worn in, its responsibility to its owner has also been a wearing task to bear. The coat has likely been worn for years, through snow, rain, and bitter winds. Its age and weather punishment would surely affect its stability in regard to the enduring quality of its back. In addition, the pockets, often filled with books, crammed with ideas, would be pulled and stuffed as the library and its contents changed. To bear responsibility for the passing of knowledge and the bearing of thought is most assuredly an undertaking.

The line continues, “bowed before the rich and powerful.” a testament of the highest compliment for the true Bohemian. As a Bohemian, your life is lived in the barest of ways. Only those ideas and inspirations that are required for spiritual and creative survival are the necessities of life. Success and fortune may forever be a temptation, but to remain true to your dogma, is to remain true to your art, and your Bohemian ideal. To proclaim a soul to have never given in to the allurement of the bourgeois is to affirm your faith in their trials and journeys. Colline’s coat has empowered him with all he needs. With its help, and its assistance in enabling him with his needed books and papers, the coat has become the badge of his loyalty to his ideals. In taking his coat to market, he is angelically passing his badge on for a better, more physical cause.

Line three of the second stanza reads, “Deep in your calm cavernous pockets,” As Colline accolades his garment and its sepulcher chambers. He compliments the coat for its ability to hold his volumes, as well as for its ability to bring a sense of peace and assuredness to his otherwise fluctuant existence. There is an achieved stillness in the pockets of his coat, a positive ness in certainty. Empowered with this coat, he is confident in his volumes, determined in his convictions, and protected from uncertainty. It is the coats ability to carry and bless its owner with page upon page of insight and thought provocation, while also protecting his frame. Yet Colline is a willing martyr of this forfeiture for the betterment of those in need.

The final line of the second stanza completes with, “You have protected philosophers and poets.” This line references not only Colline, as the groups Philosopher, but also those editions he is a student of. Just as Schanne glorifies the real-life inspiration for the character of Colline, the literary incantation is also seen with his ever present stack of books. In further detail, when examining the statement to refer to Colline as the mentioned Philosopher, remember that he is selling his coat to benefit Mimi, who in Act II of La Boheme is referred to as a poem. The coat has protected Colline the Philosopher, has protected the writings he has carried, and now with its journey will contribute to protecting Mimi.

The final lines of the aria begin, “Now that our happy days have fled, I must bid you farewell, faithful friend of mine.” He sings of the times last winter when their lives seemed carefree and joyous. That Christmas Eve at the Café Momus when their fine party was joyous and love and friendship abounded. Now that their insouciant days have passed, today is a time of despair and unease. With the obstacle of how to help, Colline has decided to bid his dear friend adieu to do his part in bettering the day. His coat has been faithful to protecting him, faithful to carrying his compendiums, and faithful to his Bohemian ideals. A companion in furthered study and a companion in life. Then as a true friend, the coat is part of the personal sacrifice to soldier onward for the benefit of those that are loved.
A final, mournful goodbye is expressed with the closing lines, “Farewell, farewell.” While Colline is brokenhearted, he is also resolved to do everything he can to help. He is truthful to the Bohemian dogma; persevering to live and protect the principles he lives his life under.

Colline’s “Vecchia zimarra” with its sparing and melancholy accompaniment, has a musical pathos of its own. Puccini has written an effective yet small aria that in a short amount of lines changes a perceived comic part to the conscience of the opera. The sudden change is both a disturbing element, while at once being elucidatory and divine. In so doing we are enlightened to the sacrifice made by Colline to do what is right, and true, for someone he cares for, in the preservation of the beauty of love.


Anonymous Colin said...

I expect we are all now interest in La Boheme.

You've made me oddly excited.

Anonymous Colin said...

Excited to forgetting my proper transitional verb.

Forgive me.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

A nice read. However you err when you say “Puccini carefully chooses the term, ‘Sacro monte’" as Puccini did not write the words. The librettists were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, great insight. I am currently studying this role and aria, and your thoughts have helped immensely. Thank you.

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