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What's the story behind Puccini's famous aria? And what's the connection with Pavarotti? Discover all the facts behind this operatic masterpiece.
Puccini’s Nessun Dorma needs little introduction. Certainly, its historic and traditional place in the context of the imperial Chinese mayhem of Puccini’s grand opera, Turandot, is clear enough, as is its frequent use in recitals and recordings of popular arias. But in recent years, its wider popularity has continued to grow, making it the indispensable partner of many crossover and “popera” stars the world over. However, outside the opera house, its use and range of variants are more far-reaching than one might imagine.
Obviously, it was the use of Nessun Dorma as the anthem of World Cup Italia 1990, as sung by Pavarotti, that first provided the vocal aperitif that whet the operatic appetite of a mass audience.
This foray into the world of popular culture was consolidated that summer, by the central role of Nessun Dorma in The Original Three Tenors Concert, courtesy of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. Although this was far from the birth of crossover, it was the defining moment when classical music, and in particular opera, gained a popular momentum and mass-market commercial viability.
So 1990 was undeniably a golden year both for Nessun Dorma and crossover. However, the aria had already begun to enter the public consciousness much earlier in the 20th century.
The powerful Swedish tenor Jussi Björling regularly sang Nessun Dorma as his big encore number some 30 years before Pavarotti. Moreover, in 1956, the great Mario Lanza gave a vigorous Hollywood rendition of Nessun Dorma in the film Serenade.
Sadly, this slightly strained performance was his worst account of the aria, but his other versions are regarded by many as among the finest recorded by any artist. Lanza’s legacy has been a strong influence on more recent performers of Nessun Dorma, such as opera star José Carreras and crossover king Andrea Bocelli.
Nessun Dorma... for sopranos?
There is even a parallel lineage for modern soprano versions of the aria. In recent times, there have been two such recordings: one characteristically sweet-toned version by Sarah Brightman, which can be found on her album Eden (2002) and reissued on her latest chart-topper Classics – The Best Of Sarah Brightman (2006); and another by the mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, who performs her version on her 2005 album, Living A Dream. Nessun dorma even made an appearance in the Britain's Got Talent final in 2014, performed by singer Lucy Kay, who placed second in the TV talent content.
So much for Nessun Dorma only being for the tenors. Nevertheless, as regards mass-market trailblazers, Hollywood was, once again, among the first to saddle up. Going back as far as 1943, Deanna Durbin, Hollywood’s singing sweetheart of the 1930s and 1940s, notches up a laudably heart-rending version of Nessun Dorma in His Butler’s Sister.
Nessun Dorma... as a pop song?
Puccini's famous aria is something of a pop hit. After Pavarotti's version stormed the pop charts in 1990, the song has taken on a life of its own. Karen Cummings’s soprano voice soars above contemporary grooves in an ambient pop version of Nessun Dorma on Australian DJ-composer Daz Nuance’s DiVAR!A Arias (2005).
And in 1999, the multi-Grammy-winning soul queen Aretha Franklin stepped in for a poorly Pavarotti to give an unrehearsed but characteristically soulful rendition of Nessun Dorma at the Grammy Awards. You might still be able to find a copy of her recorded version on the last track of her CD single Here We Go Again (1998). The performance is very much on Franklin’s terms rather than Puccini’s, but still has plenty of tingle-factor.
However, some of the other versions by pop stars are not quite so commendable, such as those by Cliff Richard and Michael Bolton, as well as the saccharine rewrite of the aria by Neil Sedaka, as Turning Back The Hands Of Time from his 1995 album Classically Sedaka. Possibly the only thing more perplexing than this bizarre version is why Nessun Dorma features on Harry Secombe’s 2001 album My Favourite Carols!
Nessun Dorma... not just a solo piece
The lion’s share of recordings of Nessun Dorma outside the opera house now fall to a growing succession of performers from the realms of crossover and “popera”.
There are some fine versions at the operatic end of the scale, for example, the one by Roberto Alagna. At the crossover end, Russell Watson’s charismatic version from his debut album The Voice (2000) has proved a huge winner among a new wave of fans. Not least, though, the recent recording of Nessun Dorma by fast-rising Blackpool-born opera star Alfie Boe proves that his debut album, Alfie Boe – The Stunning New Tenor (2006), is aptly named.
However, perhaps the most interesting and innovative aspect to emerge from the crossover end of the Nessun Dorma market is the number of arrangements for differing types and sizes of vocal groups.
In ascending order we start with The Three Tenors. We then have a male quartet version, two tenors, a baritone and a bass, courtesy of Simon Cowell’s X-Factor group G4, from their debut album G4 (2005). Next up is a five-part harmony version by two sopranos, two tenors and a bass-baritone from Amici Forever on The Opera Band (2003). And if those aren’t enough singers for your money, here are still more suggestions: the version of Nessun Dorma by the Morriston Orpheus Choir on Comrades In Arms: the Best of Welsh Choirs (2003), or indeed the one on the album Live In Paris – The Alexandrov Red Army Choir And Orchestra (2005).
And if any Nessun Dorma junkies still need a fix after all this, they should try to get hold of a copy of the Japanese import album, 24 Nessun Dorma Da Turandot (2006).
“None shall sleep?” I am sure that even Puccini would have agreed that, great as the aria may be, two-dozen Nessun Dormas on the trot is enough to render anyone Giacomo-tose.