Did Puccini know, when he wrote his last opera, that he had penned one of the most popular melodies in history?
Turandot is a wonderful opera about an exotic, ice-hearted princess, but the fame of the aria at its climax has far outgrown the fame of the opera itself.
‘Nessun dorma’ has always been a show-stopping aria – Puccini knew a thing or two about devastating top notes – but when Pavarotti gave an emotional performance of the piece at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, the aria suddenly went from a well-known opera hit to a top 10 popular classic. It was played in kitchens and football stadiums, sung by pop stars and on talent shows and featured in any number of movies.
Nearly every tenor has it in his repertoire – and some of the most famous refuse to sing it, for fear of always being compared to the great Pavarotti.
Australia’s own Rosario La Spina is renowned for his rendition of the famous aria, and he will sing it on New Year’s Eve in Sydney and again in Turandot next winter at the Sydney Opera House.
The singer’s perspective
“The aria ‘Nessun dorma’ is one of the most beautiful in the repertoire,” La Spina says, “and because of its fame it places a great deal of expectation on the tenor who has to sing it!”
For all its hype, the aria is not one of the most difficult pieces in the operatic canon, La Spina says. “But it requires incredible stamina, especially when performed in the opera, because the tenor has already sung two acts! You must be fresh enough to deliver the aria with beauty of tone, but also a high B at the end that resonates hope, because in general, that is what the aria is about!”
How does he achieve that? “When I work technically on this aria, I always remember what my teacher Mr Ward would say: ‘Dear Boy, remember to always sing beautifully and don’t get sucked into the emotion of the piece. Always massage the voice and NEVER thump it – that will only cause fatigue and long term damage’. I feel very blessed to be given the opportunity to sing such spectacular music and I hope the public can enjoy this as much as I enjoy performing it.”
Watch Rosario La Spina sing the spine-tingling ‘Nessun dorma’:
While some believe ‘Nessun dorma’ to be a romantic aria, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Prince Calaf has beaten the cruel Princess Turandot in a game of riddles, and now she is bound to marry him. He gives her one way out: she must find out his name. Turandot declares none of the people of Peking must sleep that night. “Under the pain of death,” the heralds sing, “the name of the Stranger must be revealed before morning!”
Almost tasting his victory, Calaf sings lustfully of his impending possession of the Princess, disregarding the fate of her people.
None shall sleep!
None shall sleep …
You, too, o Princess,
in your cold room
look at the stars, that tremble
with love and hope!
But my mystery is shut within me;
no one will know my name!
No, I will say it on your mouth
when the daylight shines!
And my kiss will break the silence
that makes you mine!
No one will know his name …
And, alas, we must die!
Vanish, o night!
Set, you stars!
At dawn I will win!
I will win! I will win!
Translation by William Weaver
For tickets to the New Year’s Eve Gala on 31st December, 2014, or Turandot in 2015, visit opera.org.au.