In her new segment, Loretta Barnard translates and explains opera’s greatest arias. First up, Puccini’s Nessun Dorma.
At the 1990 World Cup in Italy, an unlikely song became a massive hit. Opera lovers knew it, but the world at large? No.
Now Nessun Dorma is possibly the most well-known aria in all of opera due to its role in that World Cup.
Oh, and Luciano Pavarotti. I get goosebumps every time I hear him singing it.
So what do the words mean? We need a bit of context, so here’s a brief synopsis of Puccini’s glorious opera Turandot (1926).
Princess Turandot of China is a renowned, but cold-hearted beauty. Her father wants her to marry, but she’s not so keen and insists that any man who presents himself as a suitor must answer three riddles. If he doesn’t answer correctly, he has to die. It’s a bit extreme, but it’s an opera after all.
The opera opens with one poor prince on his way to his execution. The crowd, as crowds do, looks forward to the bloody spectacle and they sing accordingly.
Timur, the exiled king of Tartary, is in the crowd with his loyal servant girl Liu and they meet Calaf, Timur’s long-lost son. Liu, by the way, has always loved Calaf.
Long story short, Calaf sees Turandot, falls head over heels, and proposes marriage.
Turandot asks him the three riddles and much to her chagrin, Calaf answers them correctly. The riddles?
What is born each night and dies each sunrise?
What flickers hot like fire yet isn’t fire?
What is made of ice yet burns?
Answer: Turandot. (Dramatic intake of lots of breaths.)
Naturally, she’s incredibly peeved about this turn of events and Calaf throws her a lifeline, which is very generous of him, I think. Or foolish. As I said, it is an opera. He tells Turandot that if she can learn his name by dawn, then he will die and she’ll be off the marital hook.
Okay, here’s where Nessun Dorma comes in. None shall sleep. That’s because everyone has been ordered to stay up all night to try to discover Calaf’s name. The crowd – mob mentality rules – catch Liu and torture her to reveal his name, but she declares her love and loyalty to Calaf and kills herself rather than disclose his secret. (Truth be told, it’s one of the best bits of the opera; the aria Liu sings is divine.)
Nessun Dorma is Calaf’s big moment. He declares that none shall sleep – not even the princess (it sounds better in Italian: “Tu pure, o Principessa”). He declares that tremble with hope as she might, Turandot will not discover his name. Only he will reveal it to her and it will be revealed with a kiss, a kiss that will dissolve the silence. He prays that night will quickly be over.
Behind him, the chorus is bewailing his false pride – they expect him to die – but he insists that he will win. “Vincerò, vincerò!”
And win he does.
Turandot and Calaf speak and he tells her what she wants to know. She softens and realises that he’s a bit of all right after all. At dawn, Turandot addresses the crowd saying that she has learned the stranger’s name and that his name is “Love.”
Close curtain. Wow!
Check out the words here.