I think that’s a fair prediction? No football-crazy person with access to live coverage of the FIFA World Cup matches will sleep very much this week, just as so many of us haven’t ever since it all began.
“None Shall Sleep” is the literal translation of “Nessun dorma”, the title of possibly the best-known and loved operatic aria on the planet. And it owes its popularity to football as well.
The great Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti’s 1972 recording of it was used as the signature tune of BBC television’s coverage of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. It caught the public imagination, climbing to #2 on the UK Singles Chart.
Pavarotti went on to sing Nessun Dorma at the first Three Tenors concert (also featuring the Spanish tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, with Zubin Mehta conducting the orchestras of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma at the ancient Baths of Caracalla) on the eve of the 1990 World Cup final. He sang it again as an encore at the concert, taking turns with Carreras and Domingo.
The album of the concert outsold all other classical music recordings worldwide, and Nessun dorma became a regular feature at subsequent Three Tenors concerts. It has since become a football anthem in its own right.
So what’s the aria all about anyway, and where’s it from?
It is taken from the final act of the opera Turandot by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).
The creative cascade is an interesting one. Puccini first read an adaptation by German poet, playwright, philosopher and historian Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805)
of the commedia dell’arte play Turandot by Italian playwright Count Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806) who based it on a story from the collection Les Mille et un jours (A Thousand and One Days) by the French orientalist François Pétis de la Croix (1653-1713).
But the original story is based on one of the seven stories in the epic Haft Peykar (The Seven Beauties)
by 12th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209),
considered the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature. Nizami aligned his seven stories with the seven days of the week, the seven colours and the seven corresponding planets.
The story of Turandot is the story of Monday (“moon day”) with the protagonist identified in the very first line of the story as a Central Asian princess. Turan-dokht (daughter of Turan or “land of Tur”, Persian term for a region in Central Asia, formerly part of the Persian empire, in which the Turanians, or an Iranian tribe of an Avestan age were thought to have settled) is a common term used in Persian poetry for a Central Asian princess.
But Puccini’s operatic version of the story transplants the setting to China and has Calaf, il principe ignoto (the unknown prince) fall in love at first sight with the beautiful but cold-hearted princess Turandot. Any suitor wishing to marry her has to solve three riddles, and a wrong answer means death.
The three riddles are: 1. “What is born each night and dies each dawn?” Answer: Hope
- “What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?” Answer: Blood
- “What is ice which gives you fire and which your fire freezes still more? What is the ice that makes you burn?” Answer: Turandot herself.
Calaf answers all riddles correctly, to cheers from the crowd. But Turandot still refuses to marry him. He strikes a deal with her, offering her a counter-riddle: “You do not know my name. Tell me my name before sunrise, and at dawn, I will die.” She accepts.
All this has transpired in Act 2. Act 3 opens with a night scene in the royal palace gardens, with heralds proclaiming Turandot’s command to her people: “This night, none shall sleep in Peking! The penalty for all will be death if the Prince’s name is not discovered by morning”.
Calaf’s aria echoes the edict “None shall sleep” (Nessun dorma), and then adds “Not even you, o Princess, in your cold bedroom, watching the stars that tremble with love and hope.”
He ends the aria with the certainty of his victory, which makes it in that sense apt as a football anthem: “All’alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!” (At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!)
Puccini began writing the opera in 1921 even before his librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni had written the libretto. But he died of a heart attack in 1924 (he had been diagnosed a month before with throat cancer) before he could complete it, fuelling much confusion and controversy on who would finish writing the opera. Franco Alfano was chosen because his own opera La leggenda di Sakùntala (The legend of Shakuntala) matched to some extent the setting and heavy orchestration of Turandot. Nevertheless, at its premiere, conductor Arturo Toscanini dramatically laid down his baton at the point to where Puccini had reached in writing the opera, turning around to announce to the audience “Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died”.
The opera suffers from the orientalist clichés of its time, and its performance was forbidden by the People’s Republic of China for its unfavourable portrayal of China and the Chinese people. Can one blame them? The choice of names for three character roles (Ping, Pong and Pang) seems designed to poke fun and ridicule. Gilbert and Sullivan did the same thing in their 1885 operetta The Mikado, set in imperial Japan, with names as farcical as Nanki-Poo, Pooh-Bah, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, Peep-Bo. It was meant to satirise British politicians and institutions, but it would, and still does offend sensibilities even today.
Turandot was only performed in China in 1998, running for eight nights as Turandot in the Forbidden City as an international collaboration with Zubin Mehta conducting, with lavish sets, and even with soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army as extras.
“Nessun dorma” is the setting for an action scene in Mission Impossible 5 Rogue Nation, when the assassin is programmed to execute her target at the literally high point of the aria, the final “Vincerò”. The melodic material of ‘Nessun Dorma’ appears quite a few times later in the film, even being intertwined with Lalo Schifrin’s signature “Mission Impossible” theme.
Which country has its own Mission Impossible, Will a Rogue Nation prevail? Whatever happens, it is clear that None shall sleep this week. May the best team win!
(An edited version of this article was published on 8 July 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)