The World Cup is underway in Russia. I caught a few moments in a favorite Irish pub in Toronto yesterday, in between pints of Guinness with the great John Oakley. Without Cameroon I'm not sure I have a dog in this fight, and it may be that the livelier action is off the pitch, what with the Cossacks promising to ride in and break up canoodling gays. But music-wise there's no doubt about the all-time great World Cup song - from a memorable championship in Italy seven World Cups ago.
Back in the Eighties, when Luciano Pavarotti's people at Decca Records and elsewhere were trying to leverage him into a bona fide pop celebrity, their chosen vehicle was a misbegotten movie called Yes, Giorgio, a Mario Lanza backstage musical for a generation which had never expressed the slightest interest in seeing one. Luciano played an opera singer who loses his voice, and Kathryn Harrold (not the best choice) played the throat specialist with whom he falls in love. The big guy sang a mélange of aria tidbits plus a gloopy power ballad ("If We Were In Love") and, somewhat alarmingly, "I Left My Heart In San Francisco". The movie flopped and that was the end of Pavarotti's Hollywood career. I met him not long afterwards and he seemed to me irked at having been allowed to be talked into doing it.
So he went back to the opera houses and recording studios and then, suddenly, without any planning whatsoever, the tenor found himself a genuine pop star - and without having to sing any overwrought movie themes or Tony Bennett covers. It was 1990, the World Cup was being held in Italy, and, if you'd switched on the BBC for the first day's coverage, over the opening titles and footage of selected prima donna footballers nancying about, you'd have heard:
Tu pure, o Principessa,
Nella tua fredda stanza
Guardi le stelle...
That's Puccini, from his last opera, Turandot: Not the most obvious choice for a World Cup theme song. Hitherto, any CD entitled The Best Music From The World Cup would have been a fraught affair, the highlight by default being the England team's anthem for what proved to be their disastrous performance in the 1970 tournament:
They'll be watching and waiting
And cheering ev'ry move
Though they think we're the greatest
That's what we've got to prove!
Alas, they didn't.
Twenty years later, for a World Cup in Italy, you might have expected some bouncy-bouncy Europop - Raffaella Carrà or Gigliola Cinquetti or some such. Desmond Lynam, the BBC's star sports anchor, was said to be partial to Pavarotti but wanted "O Sole Mio" or a similar slab of Neapolitana. Instead, somewhere along the dark corridors of power at the Corporation, Puccini was pressed into service, and "Nessun Dorma" became the World Cup song. And, lest anyone doubt the transformative power of music, what happened over the next few weeks was remarkable. English soccer was at a very low ebb in 1990, and not just for the usual reasons - drunken knuckle-dragging Calibans baying in the stands as the cascading urine from those above them trickles down and rots their shoe leather, etc. Three decades back, footie was not just yobbish but homicidal: In the preceding five years, 39 Juventus fans had died in Brussels when a wall failed to withstand a charge by Liverpool supporters, 56 spectators were killed at Bradford City after a cigarette butt set fire to decades' worth of piled-up trash under the stands, and another 96 met their end at Hillsborough in the new secure cages in which the crowd-control experts had decided to contain them.
Even the bloodiest opera doesn't come anywhere near that scale of carnage. What did such a world have in common with Pavarotti or Puccini? Before the 1990 World Cup, you wouldn't have given much for Luciano's chances if he'd run into a rampaging Millwall mob and by way of fraternal greeting said, "Relax, lads, I'm an operatic tenor."
Yet within a fortnight Pavarotti was an indispensable part of the sport's image: Unlike his slapdash foray into Hollywood pop bombast, his magnificent recording of "Nessun Dorma" shot up the Hit Parade and eventually reached Number Two, the highest position any - what's the word? - ah, yes, aria has ever reached in the British charts. Twenty-six million viewers (or near enough half the population of the United Kingdom) watched England play in the semi-finals that year, and, though victory was not to be, the tears of Gazza, England's larky lad du jour, seemed, well, operatic. And by the eve of the final, when Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras appeared in Rome to launch what would become their highly lucrative "Three Tenors" operat-pack, it seemed entirely natural for Eurotelly's football commentators to be analyzing the performance. The World Cup's not over till the fat man sings, and the whoops were palpable when he reached for the skies and hit that triumphant high B:
Victory! Victory! Was ever there a better sporting anthem? The BBC's Des Lynam doesn't think so. And the cannier opera buffs chipped in that, ah, well, that just goes to show, when you really need a killer tune, you can't beat the aria guys. My old boss at The Spectator, the late Frank Johnson, liked to say that "Nessun Dorma" was "the last great song". Frank loathed showtunes and standards, although, late in the evening, you could occasionally wrench from him a tip of the hat to Édith Piaf, whom he used to cite (I became convinced) just to demonstrate that Irving Berlin & Co weren't merely worse than Continental opera composers but worse than Continental pap peddlers. Heigh-ho. But, to take up Frank's point posthumously, what is a "song"? Ira Gershwin was wont to quote the definition in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Song is the joint art of words and music, two arts under emotional pressure coalescing into a third.
Most operatic arias fail that test. As a general rule, the librettist writes the text in advance and it's there mainly to give some broad emotional signposts to the composer. In contrast to, say, the title song from Oklahoma!, there's a minimal relationship between individual lyrical and musical phrases: the two arts rarely "coalesce". In most operas, the songs don't have titles - they use the first line of the aria - and, in consequence, they don't have form, the organization of a lyric to demonstrate a particular point - that "You're The Top" or "These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You" or whatever. What they do have, in abundance, is glorious music - and the words are there only because, without them, the singer would have nothing to say but la-la-la. (Carmen is an exception to all the above because, as Oscar Hammerstein eventually recognized, very profitably, it's really a musical.)
But here's where "Nessun Dorma" comes out of left field, if footie fans will forgive a wander into inapt metaphorical turf. It feels more like a song than most arias. "Nessun Dorma" isn't really a title but its recapitulation right at the kick-off gives it the air of one:
Tu pure, o Principessa,
Nella tua fredda stanza
Guardi le stelle...
And the killer finish is almost worthy of one of those Jerry Herman eleven-o'clock numbers ("Ma-ame! Ma-ame! Ma-ame!") in its determination to stay on message:
What's it about? Well, it's about any epic sporting event. The opening line captures the gripping edge-of-your-seat quality of a great game - "None shall sleep! None shall sleep!" ("Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!"), and the end is what every fan is urging his team on to: "Victory! Victory!" ("Vincerò! Vincerò!") True, in the middle, Puccini's librettists, Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, wander off-track a bit and start going on about stars trembling with love and hope, and secrets hidden within me, but that's these flowery foreigners for you.
Amazingly enough, it turns out the original opera isn't, in fact, about soccer. Adami and Simoni had come to Puccini in 1920 and proposed musicalizing Schiller's adaptation of Carlo Gozzi's play drawn from the Persian collection of stories, A Thousand And One Days (not to be confused with its more famous nocturnal near-namesake). In other words, Turandot had been around the block a few times: there had already been at least seven previous operatic versions. Set in ancient Peking, it tells the tale of the beautiful Princess Turandot who will marry the first man to answer correctly three riddles. What's the catch? Well, if your answers are wrong, you get beheaded. So the curtain rises and there's the Prince of Persia waiting to be decapitated, and in disguise in the crowd is the deposed... yada, yada, plot, plot...
"Nessun Dorma" turns up when the fellow who gets the riddle answers right throws back a challenge at Princess Turandot: If you can figure out my name before dawn, you can behead me, too.
So the curtain rises on the final act, with the Princess commanding everyone in Peking to stay up all night to figure out the Prince's name or they'll all be put to death. And at that point the nameless chap lui-même contemplates his victory by singing "Nessun Dorma". I'm not the greatest fan of much of Turandot: there's an awful lot of dramatically anemic Chinoiserie in the score, and Puccini, racked by the cancer that would kill him, found much of the libretto Adami and Simoni sent him very uninspiring. It's said he wrote some of "Nessun Dorma"'s text himself, and certainly in its music he found his voice, free of any affectations and exotica. There's a great deal of momentum in the tune, and an eeriness in the brief appearance from a chorus of women:
Il nome suo nessun saprà
E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir!
- ie, no-one'll ever figure out his name and we're all gonna die. A few years ago, the Teatro Regio in Turin mounted a controversial bare-bones production of Turandot - no sets, no costumes - with one very striking idea: At the top of Act Three, "Nessun Dorma" started up from the stalls, as if co-opting all of us among the fretful spirits of the town. There's a real shift in perspective that occurs during the music, which evokes first the troubled mood of the city that doesn't sleep, and ends with tremendous passion and confidence. That dramatic movement is why movies from The Killing Fields to The Sum Of All Fears love the song - and why it was the aria Aretha Franklin chose to sing at the Grammies back in the Nineties. And it's also why "Nessun Dorma" is perfect for the arc of a football tournament.
For Pavarotti, it became his theme song, the inevitable highlight of his final public performance not long before his death, and a few years earlier a surreal lowlight of one of those all-star pop galas for the children of Bosnia, when the Fat Man was joined on his big number by Bono, Meatloaf, Michael Bolton and Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon. Really. It was also the dramatic highpoint of his funeral in 2007, when the magnificent recording - the music, Pavarotti's voice - was memorably accompanied by a flypast from the Italian Air Force.
Whether or not it is, as Frank Johnson said, the last great song, it's certainly the last popular operatic aria. "Nessun Dorma" was written in 1924, the same year as "It Had To Be You" and "Fascinating Rhythm", in a time when Italian opera was still a source of hit music. But Puccini died that November, leaving the final moments of Turandot to be pieced together from his sketches. And, with his passing, a living breathing mainstream art form ended, too. Nothing written since has resonated the way Madam Butterfly or Tosca do. At the premiere of Turandot at La Scala in 1926, Toscanini conducted up to the very last note Puccini committed to paper, and then turned to the audience and said:
At this point, the maestro laid down his pen.
And so did an entire operatic tradition. There is then a beautiful irony in "Nessun Dorma", for football fans as for opera devotees. The great cry of "Victory!" - and then relegation to the minor leagues:
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