It only takes the first few bars of Nessun Dorma – possibly the most well-known opera song ever – to give you goosebumps.
The Italian aria is taken from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, an adaptation of the play of the same name by Count Carlo Gozzi from 1792, which premiered nearly 100 years ago in 1926 at the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan. It is sung by the character Prince Calaf who is attempting to win the heart of Princess Turandot. The spine-tingling piece builds and builds to an incredibly emotional climax that has been known to reduce people to tears.
Back then, Puccini would have had no idea what his composition – which translates as ‘Let no one sleep’ – would go on to become, including that it would end up being so firmly associated with football. This is all thanks to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, when the BBC used a 1972 version sung by Luciano Pavarotti – possibly the most famous tenor ever – for its coverage of the Fifa World Cup.
Writing in 2007, after the death of Pavarotti, Philip Bernie, the head of BBC TV Sport, revealed that he got the idea to use Nessun Dorma for the tournament a year before in 1989 when he made a video to promote the draw for the World Cup. The montage of images from previous World Cups, including Marco Tardelli’s wild celebrations in the 1982 final, went down well. In the end, it was sports presenting legend Des Lynam and then BBC football editor Brian Barwick who advocated for Nessum Dorma to be used in the Beeb’s coverage.
The piece’s popularity skyrocketed from there and quickly wormed its way into popular culture and sporting history. A single release of the piece managed to make it to number 2 in the UK singles charts and Pavarotti, who was Italian, even performed it twice at a Three Tenors’ concert on the eve of the tournament’s final in Rome. A recording of that particular concert outsold all other classic recordings worldwide and went triple platinum in the United States.
Since then, the song has been replayed at nearly every major football tournament, with the Three Tenors performing at the 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cup finals. Pavarotti even sang it at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics. More recently, Andrea Bocelli has adopted the piece for sporting occasions, singing it after Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016 in a famous performance at the King Power Stadium. Bocelli popped up again at the Euro 2020 opening ceremony but that wasn’t the last we (BBC viewers) had heard of Nessun Dorma at this year’s Euros – the BBC resurrected the piece for its montage following England’s 4-0 win over Ukraine, which was, fittingly, in Rome.
However, although we are all familiar with the piece and the emotions it can conjure, do many people know what the song is actually about? As you might have noticed, the song is in Italian so for those that don’t speak that particular tongue, here is the English translation:
Nobody shall sleep!...
Nobody shall sleep!
Even you, oh 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!
Not exactly what you had in mind was it? The final line of ‘I will win! I will win’ is, admittedly, stirring stuff but the rest doesn’t exactly scream ‘the beautiful game’ does it? To understand what the words mean, we need to look at the opera itself.
Turandot, which is set in China, focuses on Prince Calaf who falls in love with Princess Turandot. However, the princess’s father is not willing to give away his daughter’s hand in marriage so easily and sets three riddles. If anyone can solve them, then they can marry the princess.
Calaf correctly solves the three riddles but Turandot is not keen on marrying the suitor and has the chance to give it a miss, as long as she can guess his name by the morning. On that note, Turandot declares that no one in the kingdom shall sleep until Calaf’s identity is revealed to her – hence the name of the piece.
Calaf, who sings the piece, is actually mocking the princess, which is evident in the first few lines (“Nobody shall sleep..! Nobody shall sleep..!”). Hardly a declaration of love is it? And definitely not the most PC thing from a 2021 perspective. Turandot doesn’t manage to learn Calaf’s name (”My name noone shall know...”) but, in a cliched ending, she does still fall in love with him after he decides to reveal it anyway – and they live happily ever after.
So that’s that. A piece which many of us associate with football and triumphant, or poignant, scenes of celebration is actually about a man mocking a woman who might be forced to marry him (“Make you mine!”), even though she knows so little about him that she doesn’t even know his name. Not exactly what you might imagine the romantic-sounding Nessun Dorma is all about and definitely not a story worth shedding a happy tear over – but, then again, things were different in the Opera scene of the 1920s.
We’ll think stick with Marco Tardelli – but, it has to be said, it’s still an absolute belter of a tune.