Nessun dorma (None shall sleep) is a spellbinding aria from the final act of Puccini’s opera Turandot (1920-24). It is one of the best known tenor arias in all opera following its use as the signature theme of the 1990 FIFA World Cup sung by Luciano Pavarotti. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate piece of music for the event: the tournament took place in Italy, the homeland of Puccini and opera alike, and the tenor’s triumphant “Vincero!” – “I shall win!” – simply said it all. Quickly becoming his signature aria, Pavarotti’s rendition of Nessun dorma subsequently reached no. 2 in the UK Singles Chart and brought the tenor popstar status.
Turandot tells the story of Calaf – a prince who falls in love at first sight with the beautiful but cold Princess Turandot. Unlike her previous suitors (who were duly executed) Calaf correctly answers three riddles set by the princess. However, Turandot is horrified by the thought of marrying him and so to appease her Calaf turns the tables and sets her a challenge: if she can guess his name by dawn she can have him executed, but if she fails she must marry him. She immediately orders that until his name is discovered none of her subjects shall sleep – hence Nessun dorma. Desperate attempts are made but to no avail so Calaf proclaims victory, Turandot concedes defeat and they marry.