I really don’t know nearly as much about lyric opera as I think I probably should. I’m not sure why that is, as its characteristics really seem to line up with what I look for in art: interesting people in curious circumstances, elevated to statuses larger than life, living lives of overwhelming emotion shot through by melodies that shine like sun through the cracks in storm clouds. Alas, I’ve seen far too few operas in my lifetime, and perhaps it’s time to change that, if not through live performance, then through video.
One opera that I have seen live, though — in college — is Madama Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini. I suppose that Puccini and Wagner comprise what most people think of, almost stereotypically, when they think of opera: from the latter you have giant sopranos wearing horned helmets and breastplates, while from the former you have tenors belting out soaring arias as they go to their deaths. Butterfly is a well-known story, and a sad one; it was later updated, not entirely successfully, by the Les Miserables team in Miss Saigon.
Today’s selection comes not from Butterfly, but rather from Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, during the composition of which Puccini actually died, leaving the work unfinished. He was close enough to the end, though, and had left enough sketches for a student to ‘finish’ the piece, and Turandot has been a standard in the opera repertoire ever since. And part of that is because of arias like this one, which has become one of those works from opera and classical music that have woven their way into the cultural mainstream. This aria is very closely associated with Luciano Pavarotti, who only died a few years ago; Pavarotti performed this aria often in concerts as an encore, and it was a mainstay of his “Three Tenors” concerts.
I honestly don’t know what the dramatic situation is when the tenor sings “Nessun dorma” in Turandot; I should probably hear the aria in the proper context at some point, because as gorgeous and famous as this is, its emotional impact is probably even greater in the context of the story of which it is a part. You can tell that the music is supposed to keep going, as opposed to building up to a huge chord; that chord at the end, designed to close out concert performances, always feels terribly out of place to me.
Pavarotti and the “Three Tenors” turned into quite the classical-kitsch enterprise toward the end, but for all that, I never heard Pavarotti fail to sing “Nessun dorma” without a lot of passion. And in this performance — not from the Three Tenors, but from the closing ceremonies at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino (it’s pre-recorded, actually) — Pavarotti wrings about as much passion from the music as you could want. And well he should have: this was his last public performance.
Tomorrow: I got no idea. I need to research what to do with ‘Q’!