Reminiscent of the melodic scope that dominates the historical crime drama Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Ennio Morricone invests the same care in crafting a lengthy multi-thematic work for Baaria (2009), Giuseppe Tornatore’s autobiographical drama spanning three generations in a Sicilian village.
Like some of his prior scores for Tornatore – Cinema Paradiso (1988), The Legend of 1900 (1998), and Malena (2000) – the emphasis is on characters and their transformations through relationships, crises, and historical events. For his latest epic score, Morricone employs a range of sounds emanating from coarse rustic vocals, Jew’s Harp, acoustic guitar, a military band, and bagpipes.
The score's tapestry contains many strong emotional peaks with heavy strings, yet Baaria is filled with many moments where the dynamics repeatedly shift from quiet intimacy to great swells of lyricism inherent to formal historical dramas.
As is typical of the genre, a filmmakers has to remind audiences of things Big, Tragic, and Meaningful, but separated from the film, Morricone’s score is an emotionally precise without the filmic clichés – perhaps one of the reasons his scores tend to enjoy longer appeal than Tornatore’s weaker films. (Malena, for example, is musically powerful, but the film is a confused, collage of comedy, tragedy, redemption, and outright misogyny.)
Silva Screen’s CD offers nearly a solid hour of major themes and variations, and the album begins with a lengthy symphonic suite (“Sinfonia per Baaria”) which introduces the sometimes eerie mix of sustained chords, coarse male voices (with Arabic harmonies), and duel bagpipes (nicely placed at opposite ends of the stereo image). The slow unraveling of the main theme’s romantic melodic line is contrasted by the sudden addition of tightly rendered, agitated notes, performed on the off-beats, which give the effect of propulsion, and of being uplifted above the clouds.
It’s a nice trick which leads into the theme’s all-string evolution, with its full harmonic parts laid out prior to a recap of the romantic intro with horns. The cue’s final third is a blend of music, sound effects, and dialogue snippets from the film (in Italian).
Silva’s CD release is drawn from the Italian master – including the art as well as booklet contents (translated into English) – so the dialogue bits are largely meaningless, and for those less fond of these conceptual designs, rather annoying, since they trample the composer’s elegant theme variation on strings. (Most likely the “Sinfonia” will reappear in a concert version, if not a compilation CD, without the superfluous aural matter.)
The rest of the CD features a wonderful array of themes, such as the energetic “Ribellione” (set to a funky tarantella rhythm, and repeated in “La visita,” and “Un fiscaletto” with ferocious brass and percussion); the menacing “Lo zoppo”; and the comedic “Un gioco sereno,” with a lumbering rhythm and an emphasis on mandolin and clarinets. “Verdiano” is a brief but elegant classical work reminiscent of Nino Rota’s lyricism, and a second version of the Baaria theme is performed by the Band of the Carabinieri Corps, using woodwinds and brass to evoke a soulful lament. (The corps also perform the triste “Oltre,” with a beautiful harmonic balance between the flutes and clarinets, and the lower brass.)
Clarinets are densely grouped together in the semi-comedic “Prima e dopo,” with its oom pa pa rhythm, and little step figures. Bagpipes reappear in the jiggy “L’allegro virtuoso di zampogna,” and trombones, thick double bass and multiple mandolins dominate the Figaro-styled “A passeggio nel corso,” before Morrione switches to classical guitar and myriad woodwind gestures.
Baaria actually takes a few listens to warm up to because Morricone seemed to have wanted to evoke emotions rather than specific historical periods. The score also feels like an eclectic concert work, and it may be that after spending the last five years performing concert arrangements of his themes, Morricone is more interested in scoring works that feel like cinematographic concerts. Whatever his intentions, Baaria is a memorable work, boosted by strong themes which make up for the album's effects-laden "Sinfonia," and a rather brief (albeit elegant) final cue which closes the album.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan