Very few things evoke memories of the summer of 1990 like the majestic tone of a legendary Italian opera star. MARK GODFREY looks at how Nessun Dorma became the signature tune of Italia ’90.
An angelic choir fades in with a sound seemingly from on high, “Il nome suo nessun saprà, E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir, morir!” followed by Luciano Pavarotti’s Calaf, the epitome of operatic power and control; building, soaring to its glorious crescendo of brass and tenor;
“Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle! All’alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!”
Played out to a visual backdrop of golden-hued renaissance art, an interpretive dance representation of Silvio Gazzaniga’s sculpted masterpiece and a montage of footballing greats viewed through the slow-motion, frosted glass of memory, Nessun Dorma provided the unlikely, yet instantly recognisable signature to the BBC’s coverage of the FIFA World Cup of 1990.
The aria forms part of the final act of Turandot by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. The central male character, Calaf, falls madly in love with the opera’s beautiful, but cold-hearted eponymous princess who insists that any potential suitor correctly answers three riddles she poses if they wish to make her his bride. Failure on his part to do so brings about an ignominious end; beheading.
Calaf passes these tests but Princess Turandot reneges on the agreement and refuses to marry him. Undeterred, Calaf – his identity as yet unknown to her – gives Turandot an ultimatum; discover his name by dawn and she can execute him, otherwise she must go through with the marriage. Cruelly, she decrees to her subjects “Nessun dorma” – “None shall sleep” that night until one of them finds out what she wants to know, and should they fail, they’ll all be put to death.
As the final act opens in the moonlit palace gardens, the aria begins, culminating with Calaf taunting the absent Turandot, certain that he will be victorious;
“Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle! All’alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!” – “Vanish, o night! Fade, you stars! Fade, you stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!”
Puccini died in Brussels on November 24th, 1924 as a consequence of the ravaging treatment he had been receiving for throat cancer leaving Turandot unfinished at the point in the story where Calaf takes the resistant princess in his arms and kisses her. Eventually, he tells her his name, sparing her subjects and putting his own fate in her hands. Declaring that she had both hated and loved him, she relents and announces to the jubilant crowd of onlookers that they are finally lovers. The opera was completed in 1926 by Franco Alfano, although his additions are regularly altered or edited out completely in the majority of productions.
The decision by the BBC to use Pavarotti’s 1972 recording of Nessun Dorma as the opening theme for their month-long TV coverage was no doubt risky, but potentially inspired. Previous efforts by both the national broadcaster and its rival commercial station ITV were hit and miss. The Beeb’s own 1986 effort for Mexico – “Aztec Lightning” by Heads – while edgy in a synth-inspired mid-80s American cop show kind of way, failed to catch the public imagination as much as ITV’s more poppy “Aztec Gold” by Silsoe; a tune so infused with the occasional clatter of castanets and sunshine it wouldn’t be out of place in an advert for Calippo ice-cream. Despite its apparent fleeting, throwaway appeal, Aztec Gold remained in active service by ITV for its coverage of the European Championships of 1988 and its regular football magazine show “Saint and Greavsie” until 1991.
Going back even further, West End-composer-luvvie Andrew Lloyd-Webber was commissioned by the BBC to pen the themes for the 1982 and 1978 World Cup opening titles. For Spain in ’82, the rather peculiar choice of the already-written “Jellicle Ball” – performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – from his musical CATS was selected; upbeat and occasionally dramatic, its inclusion served as a less-than-discreet plug for Lloyd-Webber’s new production which had been running in London for about a year and had just opened on Broadway in New York.
Argentina ’78 was ‘graced’ by an original Lloyd-Webber track, “Argentine Melody” by San Jose featuring the aptly-named Rod Argent (whose band, Argent, recorded the original version of “God Gave Rock And Roll To You” – a tune made more popular by KISS and the soundtrack to the 1991 movie Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey). It was the type of limp, faux-Latin electro-waltz that one could possibly have been subjected to in any Spanish hotel lift over the last three decades. Still, with the negative ratings impact caused by England’s non-qualification, the BBC probably didn’t give a shit – comparatively speaking.
Italia ’90 was going to be a big deal for the broadcasters. Careers would be made or dashed on the scale and delivery of the production, so any innovation or ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking as TV executives might call it, could help tip the balance in the BBC/ITV match-up. Credit for the credits, and more specifically the use of an operatic theme tune that wasn’t yet embedded in the nation’s conscious in the same way as Rossini’s Largo al Factotum or Di Capua’s O Sole Mio, seems to be due to a committee from the BBC sports department with three individuals particularly instrumental.
In 1989, Philip Bernie – now the Head of TV Sport at the BBC – was a producer working on a short 30-minute film about Italy’s preparations for hosting the tournament. Having heard Nessun Dorma played on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs – the show where celebrity ‘castaways’ choose eight records, a book and a luxury item to take with them to a mythical desert island – Bernie thought it would be an appropriate accompanying piece of music for his documentary. Although that particular plan was shelved, he resurrected the idea of using Pavarotti’s stunning performance to overlay video inserts he intended to use during coverage of the World Cup Finals draw in December 1989.
In particular, Bernie recognised the audio-visual harmony of Nessun Dorma’s dramatic finale, the word ‘Vincerò!’ – ‘I will win!’ – belted out thrice fold in an ever-heightening sense of passion, mixed with the iconic footage of open-mouthed Italian midfielder Marco Tardelli overcome with euphoria when celebrating his goal in the 1982 World Cup Final. This simple connection of sound and vision proved to be a moment of genius.
Bernie was appointed assistant editor of TV Sport at the BBC a few months later and was charged with the task of creating the opening titles for the World Cup itself, so after the success of Nessun Dorma during the draw, the final decision on its inclusion rested with Bernie’s immediate superior – senior editor Brian Barwick.
According to Bernie, Barwick – who went on to become chief executive of the Football Association from 2005 to 2008 – was keen to use a piece of Pavarotti’s work, and specifically, Nessun Dorma. At a critical preparatory production meeting, it was the ardent backing from the BBC’s face of televised sport – legendary presenter Des Lynam – that resulted in Puccini’s aria being given the green light. Bernie created the opening sequence, keeping the climactic Tardelli/ Vincerò ending.
Initially, Pavarotti’s record company Decca were reluctant for the track to be used by the BBC. It’s possible they feared a potentially detrimental link between the working-class, uncouth world of football – with all its troubles surrounding hooliganism – and the sophisticated, elitist world of opera. Perhaps they held the myopic belief that by allowing the popularisation of the tune this would over-commercialise, and thus de-gentrify Pavarotti and the wider operatic community. Either way, they made what turned out to be the correct decision and agreed to the BBC’s request. Far from damaging the image of opera or, of course, their artist, the affection with which Nessun Dorma was received across all sections of British society and further – on the back of the Italia ’90 World Cup – enhanced its appeal beyond their wildest dreams. Opera leapt, kicking and trilling, into the mainstream, and with it came ample new revenue.
And what of Pavarotti himself? Although by 1990 he was a leading figure in operatic circles and synonymous with the genre, the new found level of fame brought about by Nessun Dorma’s eagerly-awaited daily airing on the BBC propelled him to megastar status; his name elevated alongside any popular music contemporary, political statesperson, movie star or sporting legend. Prompted by its widespread positive reception on World Cup Grandstand, Nessun Dorma was released by Decca as a single and went to number 2 in the UK pop charts. Pavarotti went stratospheric.
On July 7th 1990 – the eve of the World Cup final between West Germany and Argentina – at Rome’s ancient Baths of Caracalla, Pavarotti performed the first of the ‘Three Tenors’ concerts with fellow opera music titans Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. Zubin Mehta conducted. The recording of this memorable televised performance went on to become the biggest selling classical album of all time (since surpassed), shifting around 6 million copies to date. It also won a Grammy Award in 1991 for Best Classical Vocal Performance. Nessun Dorma became integral to the show with all three singers taking it in turns to bellow different sections of the lyrics into Rome’s warm evening air; the third and final “Vincerò!” roared in supreme harmonious unison. In that instant, it was no longer just Britain and the BBC who appreciated this cultural and sporting crossover hit, but the whole world.
Fast forward 25 years and even for those who weren’t around to witness either that World Cup or the BBC’s wonderfully crafted opening title sequence, Nessun Dorma almost is Italia ’90, encapsulated in two minutes and fifty-five seconds of Italian operatic splendour. Riding on the wave of national pride created by England’s run to the semi-finals, it could also be argued that Pavarotti and Puccini – with significant help from Philip Bernie and the BBC – not only catapulted the stuffy, closed-off world of opera and classical music into the public domain, but also aided in the initial rebirth of our under-fire national game – weary and battered from the previous decade of decline, decay and tragedy – two years before Sky and the Premier League claimed that credit entirely for themselves.