Performances That Pop: “Nessun dorma” by Luciano Pavarotti (1994) and Aretha Franklin (1998)

The best songs, the ones that endure, defy their genre. A musician can transmute them beyond the conventions of their original composition without losing their story or message. In the most miraculous of cases, you uncover new meaning or feeling, something unexpected but just as sublime.

“Nessun dorma” is one of those songs. The aria from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turnadot is one of the art form’s most famous compositions to mainstream audiences, thanks to the legendary opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. His interpretation became a global sensation after performing it in concert with the Three Tenors (consisting of Plácido Domingo and José Carreras) before the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final in Rome, Italy. The live concert album, Carreras Domingo Pavarotti in Concert, is the best-selling classical album in history, reaching triple platinum status in the U.S. “Nessun dorma” was released as a single and peaked at #2 in the U.K. 

Pavarotti and the Three Tenors’ popularity after the World Cup led to several concerts and tours worldwide over the next decade. In 1994, with the FIFA World Cup in Los Angeles, the Three Tenors performed again at Dodger Stadium. In front of an estimated audience of 50,000 people, and over 1 billion watching worldwide, Pavarotti sang the song that had become his calling card. It isn’t difficult to see why. Unlike non-classical popular music, opera’s conventions limit the deviations a performer can make from the original composition. And yet, Pavarotti treated each performance like it was the first, rich with wonder at the aria’s beauty.

It’s an incredible feat for any artist to achieve that for their audience, no matter how many times they’ve performed it. Pavarotti’s unique quality was how deeply he believed he was singing “Nessun dorma” for the first time, every time. When he opened his mouth to sing at Dodger Stadium, the song consumed him; he was merely a vessel for the lyrics of victory over love’s brutal trials. The spine-tingling resonance of his tone, his bottomless lung capacity, the overwhelming crescendo of emotion building with each passing moment; it’s all in dutiful service to “Nessun dorma.” And it all came into startling clarity with those final three extended notes, “Vincero!” As he did countless times before, Pavarotti unleashed what might be one of the most soul-stirring vocals ever delivered, classical or otherwise.

But pay attention to Pavarotti’s face when he completes that final note. He looked so entrenched in the world his voice created that he could not fully comprehend it. He seemed astonished by his gift, as if, with that final “Vincero,” he accidentally reached nirvana and, with the closing of his eyes in triumphant gratitude, never would again. As it turned out, the 1994 Los Angeles concert, just like the 1990 Rome concert, was not the pinnacle of his talent, and that is the point. Pavarotti performed “Nessun dorma” as his life depended on it every time. Every time, he delivered in a way that imprinted on the soul.

There was one time, though, that he couldn’t. In 1998, the Recording Academy selected Pavarotti as its MusiCares Person of the Year and awarded him the Grammy Legend Award. They invited him to perform “Nessun dorma” at the ceremony, but throat problems forced him to withdraw at the last minute. Scrambling, the show’s producers asked Aretha Franklin — in attendance to perform “Respect” — if she would also sing “Nessun dorma” on Pavarotti’s behalf. (She had performed the song at the MusiCares event in his honor two days before.) Franklin agreed, with only Pavarotti’s rehearsal recording as guidance and mere minutes of preparation.

What Franklin sang was not a traditional rendition of “Nessun dorma,” nor did she pretend it was. While she sang in the same tenor key as the backing orchestra that would’ve accompanied Pavarotti, Franklin’s version was a new interpretation. She sang in both Italian and English, adapting the lyrics of love and defiance to the soul tradition of which she was the standard-bearer. Like Pavarotti, Franklin dug deep into that intangible part of herself — perhaps her soul — to bring the song to life. The fearlessness of her rendition, and her resolve in singing it, was a sight to behold, without even considering her stirring performance.

But what of Pavarotti’s world-shifting “Vincero”? How does a soul version rectify that legendary operatic moment? The musical genius that she was, Aretha Franklin transposed it into a gospel exaltation. With the orchestra building rapturously behind her, Franklin split that all-consuming note into a series of spirited runs that reached well beyond the rafters. One run in particular — you’ll know it when you hear it — likely shook the gates of Heaven. And just when shaking them seemed satisfactory, her voice scales even higher, defying Saint Peter to take a peek at the kingdom. It was a performance that further burnished an already-unshakeable legend.

There’s an immense power that lays inside of “Nessun dorma.” Whatever the arrangement, be it traditional opera or a thoroughly modern gospel-opera hybrid, that aria grazes the soul. It evokes emotion that can surprise you with every repeat listen. In the hands of the two most outstanding voices in modern music history, “Nessun dorma” goes even further, begetting something akin to a religious experience. There is no point in comparing the two renditions, fretting over which is more faithful or valuable, or whatever arbitrary judgment you can make. The destination is the same regardless of the version: nirvana.

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