Nessun 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.
“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.
Sometimes 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.
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