The Maestro’s Corner: Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”

A Tenor’s Best Nightmare

James Levine, Luciano Pavarotti. Paris 1998. "Nessun Dorma," Puccini.

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Emma San Martin, Editor-At-Large

The last opera composed by Giacomo Puccini is also one of his most famous – and exotic.  Turandot is set in ancient China, a gigantic empire of mystery and magic.  The story itself is a fairly standard fairytale– the beautiful princess Turandot has a heart of ice, and it takes all the passion of the heroic prince Calaf to win her love.  Several people die along the way, but the opera ends on a joyful note.

Clearly, Turandot is not famous for its plot alone.  In fact, Turandot’s biggest claims to fame are its exotic musical style – specifically, the metallic sounds in the percussion section – and the aria Nessun Dorma.  In this aria, the tenor – Prince Calaf – expresses his confidence that he will not only escape death but also win over the princess completely.  The aria is both an important plot point and a chance for the tenor to show off his vocal skills, as the climax of the opera is an incredibly high B that very few tenors can hit.  In fact, over the years of performances of Turandot, the latter function of the aria has begun to overshadow the former.  More and more, tenors have begun to exaggerate the dramatic part of the aria, dragging out the high note to ridiculous lengths in order to impress the audience.  This practice reached its head with the performances of the great Luciano Pavarotti.  In the video above, the high B at 2:36 is sustained for a full 6 seconds.  The performance is stunning, and Pavarotti is surely one of the greatest tenors to ever tackle the aria, but 6 seconds is overkill.  While the high note is the climax of Nessun Dorma, opera is not just about the high notes.

Nessun Dorma is an expression of impending victory.  The high note is supposed to channel this, but if it is held for too long, it becomes redundant.  It becomes a boast instead of a promise.  It takes some of the magic away from the moment.  The excitement of that one high note steals the thunder from the rest of the aria.

The case could be made that sustaining the high note is very difficult, and not all tenors can hold it long enough for it to become a problem.  Most likely, the best thing to do is keep the length of the note reasonable during a full performance of the opera, and only sustain it when the aria is being performed as a separate piece.