Do you know Nessun Dorma? No?
Sure you do:
Right? I’ll bet you’ve heard this one before. It’s beautiful–but that’s not the only reason why it’s so popular! In fact, I’ll break one of my cardinal rules of “how to research an article” and quote from Wikipedia:
“Nessun dorma” (Italian: [nesˈsun ˈdɔrma]; English: “None shall sleep”) is an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s frequently performed opera Turandot and is one of the best-known tenor arias in all opera. It is sung by Calaf, il principe ignoto (the unknown prince), who falls in love at first sight with the beautiful but cold Princess Turandot. However, any man who wishes to wed Turandot must first answer her three riddles; if he fails, he will be beheaded. In the aria, Calaf expresses his triumphant assurance that he will win the princess.
Although “Nessun dorma” has long been a staple of operatic recitals, Luciano Pavarotti popularized the piece beyond the opera world in the 1990s. Both Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo released singles of the aria that charted in the United Kingdom, and it appeared on the best selling classical album of all time, The Three Tenors in Concert. Since that time, many crossover artists have performed and recorded it. It has also frequently appeared in movies and on television. Unusually for a classical piece, it has become a part of popular culture. (endnote numbers removed for formatting, but they are available at the link above)
My girls asked if “popular culture” meant spaghetti sauce commercials, heh heh. I’m sure those exist also but reading further down on the Wikipedia page:
“Nessun dorma” achieved pop status after Luciano Pavarotti’s 1972 recording of it was used as the theme song of BBC television’s coverage of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. It subsequently reached #2 on the UK Singles Chart. Although Pavarotti rarely sang the role of Calaf on stage, Nessun dorma became his signature aria and a sporting anthem in its own right, especially for football. (endnote numbers removed for formatting)
Here it is:
We were in stitches! First the opening sequence of Boticelli-style angels and nymphs followed by dancers in filmy dresses leaping about in front of a…golden soccer ball??? Wait, wait, I said, trying to restore order–it’s “romantic!” Think OPERA! Think DRAMA!
Slo-mo soccer players, pumping their fists, took over the screen. Then a slo-mo SCOOOOOOORRRRRRE….
WE LOVED IT! (This was a BBC opening sequence–I suppose we should wonder whether these portrayals of Italy and Italian culture are annoying or even offensive to actual Italians? That conversation seems to go beyond the scope of our music lesson, but you can’t deny the huge influence that the Italians have had on culture, everywhere!)
The girls wanted to know what exactly is going on in the opera when this aria is sung, so off we went to Wikipedia for the lyrics. The opera is Turandot, by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), and at this moment, the cold Princess Turandot has decreed that “no one shall sleep” until someone has discovered her suitor’s name; otherwise she will kill everyone. The suitor, Calaf, has successfully answered three riddles in order to marry her but she still refuses to marry him, so he tells her that if she guesses his name, she can kill him. But if she fails, she must marry him. In this aria, Calaf is singing about his certain victory in the morning:
None shall sleep! None shall sleep!
Even you, O Princess,
in your cold bedroom,
watch the stars
that tremble with love and with hope!
But my secret is hidden within me;
none 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!
Just before the climactic end of the aria, a chorus of women is heard singing in the distance:
No one will know his name,
and we will have to, alas, die, die!
Calaf, now certain of victory, sings:
Vanish, o night!
Fade, you stars!
Fade, you stars!
At dawn, I will win!
I will win! I will win!
It is this ending cry, “VINCERO!” that creates the dramatic climax of the aria. It’s actually perfect for the ending slo-mo bit in the FIFA World Cup sequence. The dramatic tension created by the do-or-die challenge is perfect for a world championship sporting event. But who knew that modern sports culture and romantic opera have so much in common? My guess is that the BBC producers knew! And now WE know, and so do you!