By way of my brother John: a YouTube video of Luciano Pavarotti performing “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot” at an outdoor concert in Paris in 1998. In my brother’s estimation, Paravotti was “a rare and brilliantly gifted artist … one in a billion.”
Me, I didn’t pay attention. An appraisal of the singer’s career that ran in The New York Times on on Friday (along with a long, beautifully detailed obituary) noted that in the later stages of his career, Pavarotti turned “from a hard-working artist into an overindulged and sometimes clownish superstar.” In the peripheral bit of awareness I had of Pavarotti, that was close to my impression.
More’s the pity, because even with crappy Web audio, Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” is a knock out; so much so that I’ve been whistling the tune this evening, prompting calls from cohabitants to cut it out. Part of the power of the performance is witnessing this man as an instrument. The sound! And part of it is the way he appears to merge with the music, the poetry of the lyric, and the emotion behind both.
(I have watched the clip, along with others showing Pavarotti performing the same aria in other settings, several times this evening. I started out not knowing anything about it, but after an hour of Web study: “Turandot” was Puccini’s final opera — in fact, he died before it was completed; although another composer completed the work, the first public performance, conducted by Arturo Toscanini at La Scala in 1926, ended just where Puccini’s work finished; Toscanini is said to have turned to the house at that point and announced, in effect, “that’s all he wrote.” The story, which passed through many hands before reaching Puccini and his librettist, is set in ancient Peking: the emperor’s daughter, Turandot, isn’t keen on marriage; to take her hand in marriage, suitors my answer three riddles; if they fail, they die. The opera opens with the execution of one of these unfortunates and features Turandot scorning pleas for mercy. A deposed Tatar prince, Calaf, happens on the scene and is smitten by Turandot. As a nameless stranger, he takes up the challenge of answering the three riddles and, surprise, succeeds. But it’s clear that Turandot wants no part of marrying him. So he offers a challenge of his own: If you can discover my name by tomorrow morning, the marriage is off and he’ll be at her mercy. A desperate search, torture and suicide ensue. When dawn breaks — well, everything is resolved in a heroically romantic way.
The aria “Nessun Dorma” is set at the beginning of the final act. Turandot has decreed that no one in the city shall sleep until the mysterious stranger’s name is known. As one nice synopsis of the musical passage puts it:
“Act 3 opens in gloomy night with lugubrious chords in the orchestra (technically, minor chords with augmented 7ths and 11ths). Some heralds are announcing Turandot’s decree, ‘Tonight no one in Peking sleeps’ (‘Questa notte nessun dorma in Pekino’), and the chorus gloomily repeats the words ‘no one sleeps’ (‘nessun dorma’). In the first words of his aria, the Prince is repeating the words of the chorus. The G major chord that opens the aria is the first optimistic-sounding chord we’ve heard since intermission and it breaks through the gloom like the light of dawn.”
(The lyrics, both as published in the libretto and set in the score, are here, along with an English translation.)
One of the other YouTube “Nessun Dorma” clips features Pavarotti in one of his Three Tenors performances with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. It’s worth watching to get the context mentioned above; the orchestra and chorus, directed by Zubin Mehta, open with the minor-key refrain of “nessun dorma” that leads into the tenor solo (and here I am being a critic already: Splitting up the aria takes away from its power, though it gives Pavarotti a great showcase on what you might call his home field). One other “Nessun Dorma” performance to recommend: the one Pavarotti gave at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Turin last year.
Of course, this is an evening’s enthusiasm, facilitated by YouTube (hooray for Web video). But Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times critic, looks at the role and Pavarotti’s possession of it with a longer view that I can only imagine:
“By natural endowment Mr. Pavarotti was essentially a lyric tenor, ideally suited to lighter roles in Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi requiring lyrical grace and agile passage work. Yet his voice, like everything about him, was uncommonly large. With that big throbbing sound, he was tempted into weightier repertory requiring dramatic power and heft, like Calaf in Puccini’s ‘Turandot.’ Some opera purists maintain that Mr. Pavarotti erred by straying from the lyric terrain. Don’t tell that to anyone lucky enough to have heard him sing ‘Nessun dorma’ in his prime, not just as a signature aria for televised stadium concerts, but in the context of a full production of ‘Turandot.’ Wow!