We are taking a break from our American Composers series to listen to the sensational tenor Jonas Kaufmann sing the famous Nessun Dorma aria from Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” I had the opportunity to hear Kaufmann in recital with pianist Helmut Deutsch this past week and thought this would be a way to share a bit of that experience with all of you.
Kaufmann, who is widely regarded as the world’s greatest living tenor, began his career in the German opera realm and debuted with the Met in Verdi’s La Traviata. Since then, he has toured the world and recorded with Deutsche Gramophone and other top-level studios. His voice has the delicacy and warmth typical of a tenor, but it also has the depth and power of a baritone. Kaufmann credits this aspect of his voice to the baritone Michael Rhodes, under whom he studied for several years in the 1990s.
The words “nessun dorma” are translated as “none shall sleep.” In the opera, Princess Turandot says to her subjects that “no one shall sleep tonight” until they find out who her lover is. She doesn’t want to know his name because she is interested in him; she wants to know his name so she can have him killed. Apparently Princess Turandot was quite interested in remaining single. At this point, the hero of the story (the tenor) breaks into the aria that you will hear today, saying that while no one will sleep tonight, he will win the Princess’ hand in the morning. Sure enough, after a sleepless and bloodthirsty night, the Princess comes to him and says that she has found love with him.
This opera is more than just a sappy and somewhat morbid love story. It is also a powerful piece of cultural commentary. Puccini wrote it in 1920 after the upheaval of World War I. This was a time in which many people were questioning whether love and beauty still existed. He sought to answer this question through the opera Turandot, which depicts love and hope eventually shining through the darkness and brutality of Princess Turandot’s cruel kingdom. By the end of his life, this paradox had become a theme in nearly every single one of Puccini’s operas.