Le Legioni di Cleopatra - Renzo Rossellini
The tragic romance of Antony and Cleopatra inspired quite a few feature films, the most famous among them certainly being Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ monumental historical epic Cleopatra in 1963. Four years before, in 1959, Vittorio Cottafavi had directed the Italian peplum movie Le legioni di Cleopatra and told the well-known story from a totally different point of view. Cottafavi, who has long been regarded as one of the undisputed masters of the peplum genre, had a strong visual sense so that his version of the love affair distinguishes itself by beautiful compositions and intelligent dialogue, at least in the Italian version, whereas the English version was cut down and badly dubbed. The Argentinian beauty Linda Cristal, who one year later became popular through John Wayne’s The Alamo and even more through the TV western series High Chaparral, stars as treacherous and sensual Cleopatra, the French actor Georges Marchal plays Antony who has become addicted to the Egyptian queen, and the Italian Ettore Manni is seen as Roman officer Curridio through whose eyes the well-known tragedy of the historical protagonists shines in a new light.
Cottafavi’s movie begins after the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. when Antony was defeated by the Roman legions of Octavian, who throughout the film is already named Augustus, the emperor title he took on only four years later. Augustus secretly sends his consul Curridio, an old comrade-in-arms of Antony’s, to Alexandria in a final attempt at peace-making. In the city, Curridio meets Berenice, a mysterious dancer, and falls in love with her without knowing that Berenice is actually Cleopatra, who leads a double life using this name. He also meets the slave girl Marianne, who falls in love with him after he liberates her brother from slavery. When he finally manages to reach Antony, the latter refuses to surrender and goes toward his tragic destiny. Cleopatra, on the other hand, is torn between her feelings for Curridio (and the possibility to live free) and the fidelity to Antony and her destiny as queen of Egypt. Her sense of duty towards her country wins so that she leaves Curridio in the hands of her palace guards (but secretly notifies his friends so that they can save him) and returns to Antony. The Roman armies of Augustus march upon Alexandria, and in the ensuing battle Cleopatra’s troops are defeated. After a last futile attempt to save the life of her beloved by offering herself to Augustus, she gets back to her palace and finds the corpse of Antony. All that is left for her to do is join her loved one in death, whereas Curridio now departs with Marianne.
We are particularly proud to present on this CD the premiere release of Renzo Rossellini’s complete original score for Le legioni di Cleopatra thanks to the master tapes in mono which have been preserved in the Sugar Music archives. In fact, this is the first time ever that any original film music by this first-rate and nowadays vastly underrated composer has been made officially available. Renzo Rossellini (1908 - 1982), the younger brother of the famous Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, was one of the pioneers of Italian film music who had dedicated himself to the cinema from the mid-30s onwards and attained his best results when he contributed to the films of the Neorealist period which were mostly directed by his own brother such as Roma Città Aperta (1945), Paisà (1946), Stromboli (1949), Europa ‘51 (1952), etc. All in all, he composed the music for more than 90 films between 1936 and 1965 when he retired from the cinema and then later during the 70s became artistic director of the Monte Carlo Opera.
From La nave bianca in 1941 to Vanina Vanini in 1961 he had scored almost all feature-length films directed by his brother Roberto. But just like Nino Rota in Italy or Erich Wolfgang Korngold in America he always led a double life and was also very active in the field of classical music: His real love belonged to the musical theater so that he wrote no less than nine operas as well as ballets, symphonic poems, oratorios and chamber music. Particularly during the 40s and 50s he was quite a prominent figure in the musical life of the city of Rome and was also active as a music critic, music teacher and musicologist. He always remained faithful to his own artistic credo which was deeply rooted in the lyric opera tradition of the 19th century and above all in the verismo style sprinkled with delicate touches of French impressionism. Both in his operas and in his film scores his musical voice is immediately recognizable and he always tries to communicate directly with his audience. Thematic and melodic inventiveness and a distinct dramatic sense are important traits of his musical language which of course were also responsible for his success as a film composer.
Le legioni di Cleopatra in 1959 was not at all his first foray into the peplum genre as he had already gained sufficient experience through his work on the epics Messalina (1951), Spartaco (1952) and Teodora, imperatrice di Bisanzio (1954) just a few years before. There are even themes and tracks from Spartaco -the love theme for Curridio and Marianne, the fanfares for Augustus, Antony’s death scene- and Teodora -Berenice’s dance- which Rossellini reworked for his Le legioni di Cleopatra score.
His music for the Cottafavi picture is lush, passionate and operatic, but it can also be intimate and delicate with exquisite use of woodwind soli for the romantic night scenes. All in all, it is a multi-faceted score rich in themes which are constantly varied on a refined level. The Main Title goes against expectations, and instead of the heroic bombast usually encountered in this genre Rossellini opts for a purely atmospheric introduction: Menacing timpani rolls accentuated by sharp brass chords lead into a mysterious exotic flute solo with arabesques which is then backed by strings. Throughout the film this music will be associated with Cleopatra and her ambiguous character, fateful and seductive at the same time. During the first half of the movie where the melodrama predominates, Rossellini above all excels in unfolding a sensual musical atmosphere with great sensitivity. In the slave market scene (Track 7) for example he creates a lovely impressionistic mood with rustling figuration of flute and oboe followed by warm strings. But one of the early musical highlights is Berenice’s dance (Tr. 8): Woodwind glissandi give way to flute and oboe embellishments which are then taken up by the melodic charm of an elegant romantic string theme without ever losing the transparency of the orchestral setting. Tender and seductive, this music expresses the erotic appeal Berenice/Cleopatra has on Curridio when he sees her dancing. Even more subtly handled is the scene of their secret meeting at night where Rossellini transforms the thematic material into a poetic nocturne highlighted by solo viola (Tr. 10). The love theme for Curridio and Marianne, on the other hand, has a particular haunting melodic quality and is first heard in Tr. 12 where it is intoned by the clarinet and then by the full string section.
The action scenes are mainly reserved for the second part of the movie, especially the long battle sequence (Tr. 21 and 22) when Augustus’ Roman legions and Cleopatra’s allies fight against each other. Here the experienced dramatist Rossellini comes to the fore. He brilliantly underscores the battle scenes with ferocious intensity and a powerful rhythmic drive while keeping the motivic material always interesting and so generates genuine physical excitement - certainly one of the finest examples of its kind to be found in the Italian peplum genre.
After the defeat the tragedy takes its run, and Rossellini has reserved one of his most eloquent themes for this final part of the film. Before Antony commits suicide, he bids farewell to Cleopatra, and for the first time we hear what may probably be called the Antony/Cleopatra love theme: An ascending theme full of despair (Tr. 23) which then changes into a faster and stirring arrangement for full orchestra when Cleopatra in her chariot races to Augustus to save her and Antony’s life. Upon her return to the palace in Alexandria she finds Antony dead, and Rossellini scores this moment with a beautifully subdued descending melody for strings which gets interrupted twice by agonizing high strings (Tr. 26). This is a sublime dirge of poignant melancholy strongly reminiscent and even worthy of Puccini. In the Finale (Tr. 29) the Curridio/Marianne love theme finally comes to its own liberated from all burdens and swells up to a full orchestra statement which draws the film to a close.
On the master tapes we have also found two surprising demo versions for piano and bass drum of the two dances in the film and have added them as bonus tracks at the end of the CD. These are more than mere fillers, because these are also musically quite interesting and attractive piano pieces strongly influenced by the French impressionist style of Debussy. May our CD contribute to the rediscovery of an extraordinary Italian Golden Age score and its fascinating, but totally neglected composer.