Home > Reviews > UP AT THE VILLA – Pino Donaggio

UP AT THE VILLA – Pino Donaggio

upatthevillaOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In what is his most high-profile international outing since Never Talk To Strangers back in 1997, Italian composer Pino Donaggio has written a beautifully romantic score for the new film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Up at the Villa. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn and Anne Bancroft, the movie is an old-fashioned love story between a soon-to-be betrothed English rose and a brash, charming American set against the backdrop of a pre-War Italy that is beginning to embrace fascism with an alarmingly rapid pace. While the two lovers anguish over whether or not their illicit liaisons should continue, Maugham’s social and political commentary seeps through the rest of film, resulting in a motion picture which is emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating. You know, from history, that their affair is ultimately doomed, but such is the strength of the performances you still care. There is also a twist in the story that I won’t reveal – suffice to say that it concerns the fate a young Austrian refugee played by Jeremy Davies.

Up at the Villa’s music is generally light, melodic and completely orchestral in nature – something of a change for Donaggio, who of late has been increasingly embracing slightly more dissonant, or at least unconventional, attitudes to scoring. It’s difficult to describe in a way – but somehow Donaggio seems to have perfectly captured the setting and mindset of the film throughout his score. It is a score rooted in the classics, and is therefore appropriate for the social milieu of the era, but it doesn’t show its emotions too early, cleverly illustrating the polite standoffishness and formality of the protagonists. It’s very attractive and captivating, hinting at the passions that continually bubble under the surfaces, and occasionally rising to wonderful crescendos as the hesitant lovers gradually let their inhibitions go. If that weren’t enough, Donaggio’s music also manages to evoke the romantic notion of the Tuscan countryside, scoring the lush landscape with equally lush string work and a style that conforms to the best in European film music.

‘Olive Branch’ makes an especially powerful statement, recapitulating the main theme (first heard in ‘Up at the Villa’) but with a fresher, more hopeful aspect. Soft, hovering strings delicately embrace a piano motif before swelling to take over the melody, accompanying the hesitant first steps of the courtship between Scott Thomas and Penn. Similarly, the gorgeous ‘The Kiss’ takes the music a step further by presenting a beguiling duet between violins and flutes. Further lovely performances, in ‘Stay With Me’, the quietly downcast ‘The Princess’ Goodbye’ and ‘No Set Plans’, add volumes to the mood of quiet, yet intensely involving reflection. In these cues, and throughout most of the score, there is very little that one could call “exciting music”, but Donaggio’s sense of calm, peace and effortless romance is totally engaging.

‘The Fascist Office’ is unusual, containing as it does a series of stiff, staccato bass and cello phrases punctuated by a brief trumpet motif. However, it’s difficult to understand what Donaggio’s intentions for the cue were – it doesn’t accompany a particularly amusing scene in itself, but the music almost seems to be mocking the garrulous Government official played by Massimo Ghini by giving him a pompous, yet silly march. As music, it’s an intriguing cue, but dramatically I think Donaggio may have overshot the mark a little. The same goes for ‘Tennis Plot-Flowers’, a rather amusing little scene which shows Scott-Thomas “getting one over” on the scheming Princess (Anne Bancroft), but which is given an ominous overtone by the music, a rather overbearing variation on the Fascism theme with low-end strings and pulsating brass.

And then there is the more “tense” music that relates to the story’s unexpectedly violent twist. Cues such as ‘Drive Away’ and ‘Intriguing Picnic’ raise the anxiety levels considerably, not because the music itself is particularly violent, but because its tone is so different to the rest of the score. Nervous sounding cellos waver underneath a skittish piano motif and an oddly ominous oboe, not quite giving away the secret, but letting the listener know in no uncertain terms that not all is well up at the villa. In complete counterbalance, Donaggio also gets the chance to stretch his jazz muscles, writing cues such as ‘Party at Peppinos’ and ‘Martini’, pieces that leisurely drift along like a hazy summer day, filled with muted trumpets, stand-up basses, pianos and brushed snares. Similarly, the lively ‘Florence Two Step’ is a lively touch of Charlestonesque source music which more than effectively pastiches the dance hall standards of the era.

All in all, I would have to conclude that this is one of the best Pino Donaggio efforts I have heard in a long time. While I admit to not being fully familiar with his body of work, especially some of the more obscure works he wrote for Italian features, I would be surprised if anything in his filmography came close to surpassing the moodily attractive sounds on offer here. For any potential collector looking for a starting point from which to explore the Italian’s work, one could do far worse than begin with Up at the Villa.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Up at the Villa (3:34)
  • Chat with the Princess (1:46)
  • A Pistol in Florence (2:35)
  • Party at Peppino’s (3:09)
  • Olive Branch (2:42)
  • The Kiss (3:25)
  • Shortcut (1:00)
  • Back to the Villa (1:15)
  • The Fascist Office (2:06)
  • Tennis Plot-Flowers (3:11)
  • Florence Two Step (3:59)
  • Stay With Me (3:48)
  • Telephone Call (2:51)
  • Drive Away (2:19)
  • Intriguing Picnic (3:12)
  • Tete A Tete (1:07)
  • Martini (1:04)
  • Not Just A Pretty Face (2:27)
  • The Princess’ Goodbye (3:03)
  • Arrividerci (1:27)
  • No Set Plans (5:21)

Running Time: 55 minutes 30 seconds

Varése Sarabande VSD-6128 (2000)

Music composed by Pino Donaggio. Conducted by Gianfranco Plenizio. Performed by The Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra. Recorded and mixed by Marco Streccioni. Edited by Annette Kudrak and Dave Tinsley. Mastered by Erick Labson. Album produced by Pino Donaggio.

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