Puccini’s last opera Turandot contains one of the most celebrated arias in all opera — ‘Nessun dorma’.
It became an anthem worldwide when used as the theme for the 1990 World Cup as sung by one Luciano Pavarotti, but what is this aria actually about, and what is its history?
Have a favourite recording? Share it with us in the comments below…
Through being so often performed outside the opera house, the context of ‘Nessun dorma’ within Turandot is not widely known. It’s actually quite dark! To catch you up:
Calaf has successfully managed to solve Turandot’s three deadly riddles and won the right to make her his wife. However, he has voluntarily placed his life in her hands, bargaining that if she can learn his true identity by daybreak, she can execute, rather than marry him. The delightful Princess Turandot therefore decrees that none of her subjects shall sleep until his name is discovered, and if they fail, all will be killed. Calaf, alone in the moonlit palace gardens, hears the heralds proclaiming her command ‘Nessun dorma’ (‘None shall sleep’), and echoes their cry in the first line of the aria:
Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!
Tu pure, o Principessa,
nella tua fredda stanza,
guardi le stelle
che tremano d'amore, e di speranza!
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me;
il nome mio nessun saprà!
No, No! Sulla tua bocca
lo dirò quando la luce splenderà!
Ed il mio bacio scioglierà
il silenzio che ti fa mia!
None shall sleep! None shall sleep!
Not even you, oh Princess,
in your cold bedroom,
watching the stars
that tremble with love and with hope!
But my secret is hidden within me;
no one will know my name!
No, no! On your mouth
I will say it when the light shines!
And my kiss will dissolve
the silence that makes you mine!
|Women's chorus (in the distance):
Il nome suo nessun saprà,
E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir!
No one will know his name,
and we will have to, alas, die, die!
Dilegua, o notte!
Vanish, o night!
Fade, you stars!
Fade, you stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win
Puccini must have known that 'Nessun dorma' was going to be a hit. The sketches for the opera's finale left behind after his death clearly indicate that he wanted the 'Nessun dorma' theme to return as the big finish, which reveals its importance! Here are a few landmark recordings of the aria charting the evolution of its fame...
Francesco Merli (1938)
This is taken from the very first complete recording of Turandot in 1938 — twelve years after the opera’s premiere. See if you can spot the differences between this and more modern interpretations of the aria!
Jussi Björling (1944)
This interpretation by Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, one of the great voices of the 20th century, is many people’s favourite. The control with which he sings and drama he brings to each phrase are for some, unmatched.
Björling regularly sang ‘Nessun dorma’ as his big encore number decades before the aria reached the height of its widespread popularity. In fact, Björling was the ultimate idol of Luciano Pavarotti, who stated that "When I'm about to train a new opera, I first listen to how Jussi Björling did it. I would more than anything else wish that people compared me with Jussi Björling. That's how I'm striving to sing."
Mario Lanza (1956)
Hollywood icon of the 1940s and 50s and the first pop star tenor, Mario Lanza, had performed little in the opera house by the time he achieved fame via the big screen, but some of his interpretations of operatic arias are uniquely powerful. Lanza was hugely important in bringing opera into popular consciousness. Here is his ‘Nessun dorma’ sung as part of the 1956 film Serenade:
Franco Corelli (1958)
Dubbed the ‘Prince of Tenors’, Franco Corelli possessed a ringing voice, a charismatic stage presence and movie-star good looks. In 1958, he made a TV film of Turandot, from which this ‘Nessun dorma’ is taken. Listen to his way of drawing out certain phrases to give them emphasis…
Luciano Pavarotti (1990)
‘Nessun dorma’ was propelled far beyond the opera world when Luciano Pavarotti's 1972 recording of the aria was used as the theme for the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. It gained pop status as a result, reaching #2 in the UK Singles Chart. Although Pavarotti did not sing the role of Turandot’s Calaf on the stage very many times, ‘Nessun dorma’ became his signature aria. More than 25 years later, it remains closely associated with his iconic voice.
And one more…
The Three Tenors (1990)
How could we miss the legendary rendition by the Three Tenors: Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, who performed ‘Nessun dorma’ all together as the encore to their debut concert (on the eve of the 1990 World Cup final). It’s safe to say that this had a fairly large impact. The recording of this concert became the bestselling classical album of all time and the triple ‘Nessun dorma’ became a favourite of subsequent Three Tenors concerts.
The high note
In Puccini’s score, the famous, climactic high B♮ sung on the second syllable of the final ‘vincerò’ (‘I will win’) is actually written only as a passing semiquaver. You can hear it sung faithfully by Francesco Merli (above) in the first complete recording of Turandot in 1938. However, it has long since (even before Pavarotti!) become a tradition to extend this ringing top note as long as possible — for dramatic effect, and, well, to show off. Audiences now expect it, and they go crazy…
The real thing
If you want to hear the ‘vincerò’ live, join us for our brand new concert staging of Puccini’s Turandot, where Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas will be singing the role of Prince Calaf. Spine tingling. Here's a taster:
To book tickets or find out more, visit the Turandot webpage.