A Close Look at "Nessun dorma"
“Nessun dorma,” Calàf’s Act III aria, is not only one of opera’s greatest hits, but one of the most popular melodies in history. It’s in the repertoire of almost every opera tenor. It became a calling card of Luciano Pavarotti, and the subject of a genial “sing-off” when Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras performed together. It’s been heard in soccer stadiums and discos around the world, and it has raised the romantic temperature of a number of films.
Within the context of Turandot, however, “Nessun dorma” is more than a love song. Students can listen to the aria in context on Track 2 and read along on the accompanying reproducible found here.
The phrase “nessun dorma” means “no one may sleep.” As Act III begins, it’s heard not from Calàf, but from the city guard. Turandot, they sing, has ordered that no one may sleep in the city that night—the first night during which she’s ever felt threatened. It’s the night after Calàf solved her riddles, earning the right to marry her. But rather than claim his due, he has offered Turandot a chance to regain the upper hand: if she can guess his name by morning, he will willingly go to his death.
This deal keeps both Turandot, the opera, and Turandot, the person, moving forward after a scene that would otherwise seem to have resolved the proceedings. But if audiences have wondered what’s in it for Calàf, “Nessun dorma” is as close as Puccini and his librettists come to an explanation.
As the track begins, voices around the city echo the cry of the guards, “Nessun dorma.” Calàf hears it, too, walking in the palace gardens, his mind on the sleepless Turandot. He imagines her lying in starlight and a state of anxiety. Then two of the most famous lines of romantic music ever written well up as Calàf declares, “My secret is safe inside me—no one will discover my name.” His bravado kindles an erotic fantasy: he imagines his own lips revealing his name as he kisses the princess for the first time.
This image restores an atmosphere of romance. But it fades fast when the voices of women from inside the palace reprise those same two lines of melody with a new lyric: “No one will find out his name. And we will—alas!—have to die!”
Calàf continues the melody, lush waves of song rolling forth as he calls upon the night to depart, the stars to set. The music foretells a grand, sensual finish, and Calàf’s words correspond. When dawn comes, he sings, “I will be victorious!” (in Italian, “vincerò”).
Self-confidence, nameless people fearing death, a longing ultimately not for love but for conquest: Puccini and his librettists, with sly irony, draw the psychological profile of a character who might otherwise seem a simple, not to say foolish, and romantic. Did Calàf relinquish his salvation to prove something about love—or for the thrill of the hunt? Only the conclusion of Act III will tell.