Giacomo Puccini: Nessun Dorma

Context

Nessun Dorma is a tenor aria that features at the end of Giacomo’s Puccini’s 1926 opera Turandot. The aria is sung by the main male character, Calaf, who fall in love with Princess Turandot. Any man that wishes to marry the Princess must successfully answer her three riddles, but if he fails he will be beheaded. The aria Nessun Dorma (‘None Shall Sleep’) shows Calaf expressing his confidence that he will win the princess.

In the act previous to the one that Nessun Dorma is in, Calaf has correctly answered all three of the princess’s riddles. However, she does not want to marry Calaf. The budding bachelor then hands the princess a lifeline – she must guess his name before dawn. If she succeeds she can execute him, but if she does not then she must marry him. The emotionally cold princess decrees that nobody shall sleep that night until his name is discovered. 

 

The Text

As the final act begins, Calaf is alone in the palace gardens at nighttime. In the distance he can hear Turandot’s subjects proclaiming her commands. The aria begins with an echo of what Calaf can hear in the distance:

 

Nessun dorma! Nessun Dorma! / None shall sleep! None shall sleep!

Tu pure, o Principessa, / Not even you, oh Princess

Nella tua fredda stanza, / in your cold bedroom

Guardi le stelle / watching the stars

Che tremano d’amore, e di speranza / that tremble with love, and with hope!

Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me; / But my secret is hidden within me

Il nome mio nessun saprà! / no one will know my name!

No, No! Sulla tuo bocca, / No, no! On your mouth

Io dirò quando la luce splenderà! / I will say it when the light shines!

Ed il mio bacio scioglierà / And my kiss will dissolve

il silenzio che ti fa mia! / the silence that makes you mine!

Just before the end of the aria, a chorus of women are heard singing in the distance:

Il nome suo nessun saprà, / No one will know his name,

E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir! / and we will have to, alas, die, die!

 

Calaf, now certain of success finishes the iconic aria:

Dilegua, o notte! / Vanish, o, night!

Tramontate, stelle! / Fade, you stars!

Tramontate, stelle! / Fade, you stars!

All’alba, vincerò! / At dawn, I will win!

Vincerò! Vincerò! / I will win! I will win!

 

 

The Music

The defining point of Nessun Dorma is the final Vincerò! which features a sustained top B followed by a top A. However, in Puccini’s original score this was not how the music was written (see Example 1). In the original score the B is written as a semiquaver and the A as a semibreve. Both notes are very high for the tenor, which makes it even more of a show piece when they are elongated as heard in 99% of performances.

Example 1 – The original notation of the two high notes in Nessun Dorma

The music builds throughout the aria towards that final climax, with the lilting whimsical lines from Calaf soaring above the orchestral accompaniment. The confidence in the tenor comes across in the exclaimed lines, which shows his growing confidence in the situation. The score is full of emotion for both the tenor and the orchestra, which is why it tugs on your heartstrings all the way through. 

 

Final Thoughts

Nessun Dorma became popular outside of the opera circles after Luciano Pavarotti’s 1972 recording of it was used as the theme for the BBC’s coverage of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. Although Pavarotti rarely played the role of Calaf in opera productions, Nessun Dorma became his signature aria. Furthermore, the aria became popular for the Three Tenors, who performed the work at the 1990 World Cup. The image of the Three Tenors dressed formally on a global sporting pitch captivated the world and became an iconic moment for classical music and sport.

 

Happy reading!

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