Nessun Dorma

Nessun Dorma

sleepNessun Dorma,  No one sleeps.  I can’t argue with the people that tell me I don’t get enough sleep.  It’s true.  I do tend to burn the candle at both ends from time to time.  I’m not really an insomniac, I just have a lot of things to get done.  If every day had 36 hours, I probably still couldn’t get everything done.  I should give it a try on another planet. The astronomers say the day on the planet Mercury is equal to about 58 ½ Earth days.  That seems like enough time to work in a little nap here or there.

Poster_Turandot“Nessun Dorma”, probably the most famous tenor aria in all of opera,  is from Puccini’s Turandot.  In the opera, suitors must answer three riddles to win the right to marry the beautiful but cold-hearted princess Turandot.  They ring a gong, take their shot at answering the questions, and they are beheaded if they get the answers wrong.  This is opera, so no one asks too many questions about why would anyone want to risk their life to marry a cold-hearted princess, no matter how beautiful. You just accept that idea and go on with the production.  Calaf (himself a prince in disguise), answers the questions correctly, and Turandot is furious, as she never had any intention of giving in to one of these suitors.  Calaf offers a deal. Since no one knows his name, if she can guess it before sunrise, he will allow himself to be put to death.  The order goes out that no one shall sleep until this suitor’s name is discovered.  Calaf, confident of his victory, sings Nessun Dorma, the most famous of tenor arias.  The words in English translation:

Nobody shall sleep!…

Nobody shall sleep!

Even you, o Princess,

in your cold room,

watch the stars,

that tremble with love and with hope.

But my secret is hidden within me,

my name no one shall know…


On your mouth I will tell it when the light shines.

And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine!…

(No one will know his name and we must, alas, die.)

Vanish, o night!

Set, stars! Set, stars!

At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!

The superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti made this aria one of his signature numbers.  His career brought operatic arias to millions of people whom otherwise might never have listened to this music.  His success gave many arias lives of their own, separate from the operas in which they were sung.

Puccini, Turandot, “Nessun Dorma”

Schott's_1899_Walkure_titleSometimes in opera, sleep is inflicted upon a character as a magical curse.  The most famous example of this is in Die Walküre, Richard Wagner’s second music drama of the Ring cycle.  In this opera, Brünnhilde is being punished by Wotan for disobedience.   There was a duel between an angry husband, Hunding, and a guy named Siegmund who had wandered into his house during a storm and fell in love with Sieglinde.   (By fell in love, we mean Sieglinde is pregnant with a baby who will be Siegfried, the hero of the next drama in the Ring cycle).  Brünnhilde was supposed to ensure Hunding’s victory.  Instead, she believed in love and helped Siegmund.  The reasons that Wotan needed to have Siegmund lose are complicated, and involve several hours of operatic adultery, incest and the wrath of Wotan’s wife Fricka (the protector of wedlock).  Wotan himself has to intervene, and Siegmund dies his operatic death.

Wotan’s punishment was to curse Brünnhilde into a magical sleep and fall victim to the desires of any random man who came along.  She was to be defenseless prey.  She pleads for some mercy, and as his favorite daughter among the Walküres, he takes some pity on her at the last moment.  She is still put into a magical sleep, and will be owned by the next man to come along, but Wotan surrounds her with a magical ring of fire.  This fire will keep out all but the most brave and worthy heros. (Just goes to show there are always a few obstacles to overcome to get to a good woman 🙂  ) It also sets up much of the action in the next opera, Siegfried.   This performance from the Metropolitan Opera has English subtitles for our convenience.

Richard Wagner, Die Walküre, “Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind

When people ask me, “when do you ever sleep?”, I usually try to muster my best Sam Elliot impersonation and say  “I’ll get all the sleep I need when I’m dead”.  This always sounds a lot cooler in my head than it seems to play in person.  Maybe I should start quoting Hamlet:

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come


The German Who Thought He Knew Everything

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

The Bayreuther Festspiele is underway again in Bayreuth, Germany.  It is the annual festival of music dramas by Richard Wagner, in the opera house he designed specifically for his works.  Wagner contributed a world of innovations to the opera realm, with his concept of a “total work of art”  (Gesamtkunstwerk).  He sought a single vision uniting the poetic, visual, dramatic and musical arts.  He wrote all of his own libretti and texts for his major works, had a hand in costume and stage design, and of course wrote brilliant music.  The Bayreuth festival is one of those “things to see”, for every opera lover before they die.  It’s funny to me how this prime event occurs outside of the major cultural centers of Germany.  Wagner ended up having to go far away to build his temple of the music drama, in part because he was a snake and had sold the performing rights of many of his works to more than one person.  If his operas were performed in some of the existing major opera houses, Wagner would get absolutely no money for them.  The Bayreuth festival house was a way for Wagner to gain some financial independence for himself and his family, and the festival is still overseen by some of his descendants.

Wagner should have stopped at music and operatic drama, but he also left many writings on philosophy and politics.  The political writings show a great deal of the antisemitism of the time and of Wagner’s point of view.  This, of course, is repulsive and indefensible.  Worse yet, several generations later, the Nazis and their Fuehrer championed Wagner’s music as an example of German superiority in their misguided nationalistic zeal.  Wagner’s music was played in concentration camps, and German soldiers, home from the front lines, were forced “guests” of the Fuehrer in the Bayrueth theatre.  I think the conductor Daniel Barenboim has said some of the most intelligent things regarding the duality of coming to terms with Wagner, his music and his political views.  Some of those can be read in an interview at Barenboim’s website here.

Wagner and Ideology

I was going to write a handful of posts on Der Ring des Nibelungen, but something made me think of Tristan und Isolde instead.  Wagner took the story of Tristan from a medieval Germanic poem, but the myth itself is one of those ancient tales that seems to have always existed.  There are versions of it as early as the 1200’s that have survived, and variations on the tale in over 10 European languages.  It is the tragic, romantic story of a knight (Tristan) and a beautiful Irish princess (Isolde).  I think it has to be Isolde that gives this story the power to keep being told after 800 years.  An Irish queen is beautiful, free-spirited, intelligent, funny, sassy, and one fascinating challenge to be around.  If you come into contact with one, you can’t help but be infatuated.  It is no wonder to me that one of the greatest romantic stories of all time has an Irish princess at its center.

The music in Wagner’s drama is just as bewitching as the Irish woman in the tale.  In fact, the prelude to Tristan und Isolde may very well have been the piece that destroyed tonality.  It centers around a harmonic construction called a diminished seventh chord.  Now normally, these are very slippery harmonies, because the way they are built they could resolve and lead to any of 8 different major or minor chords for resolution.  Normally, this sort of tension and resolution is what gives a piece of music its harmonic forward movement.  The diminished seventh chord is by its nature an ambiguous sound, and one cannot predict exactly where it will resolve.  In the prelude to Tristan, Wagner simply doesn’t care.  His diminished harmonies do NOT resolve. He just wallows in the tension and ambiguity of the chord.  One tension follows another and another still after that.  It is really a brilliant musical representation of the sexual and romantic tension of the star-crossed lovers that are at the center of this opera.  Take a listen.

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Prelude

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

The precedent that Wagner set with the prelude to Tristan creates a crisis in the world of harmony.  Tension and dissonance exist for their own sake, not for their relation to their tonal resolution.  This really sets the mess in motion that occupies the bulk of the twentieth century in so-called “art music”.

This is opera, so naturally everyone ends up dead in the end.  Tristan and Isolde do not get to live out their days in a cabin in the woods by the lake, dancing in the moonlight on an endless vacation.  They die, and cause a good deal of collateral damage along the way in their four-plus hour music drama.  It stinks, because I was really rooting for these two.  Maybe in a different time and place, there wouldn’t be so many other characters in the opera to get in the way.  Wagner’s Germanic mind seemed to have an answer and opinion on everything, I don’t see why he couldn’t have worked it out for Tristan and Isolde.  I sure would have appreciated it.