North star shines again

“Cleopatra’s” barge may have sank at the box office in 1963, but conductor John Mauceri believes Alex North’s musical score is ready to sail back from the shores of denial.

Realizing a long-held dream, Mauceri will conduct the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra on Aug. 27 in a half-hour “symphonic portrait” drawn from the 2½ hours of music North wrote for the epic, whose bloated $44-million budget nearly felled 20th Century Fox.

Mauceri, a champion of film music, says “Cleopatra” is among “the top 10 film scores of the 20th century,” and worthy of revival.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s four-hour film is famous for its excesses and the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton affair that fed the tabloids. But North’s Oscar-nominated score has only grown in stature over the years; it was fully restored for a two-CD release on Varese Sarabande Records last year.

“What Alex North was doing was basically what Verdi was doing 100 years before in ‘Aida': inventing Egyptian music for his time, because nobody knows what Egyptian music sounded like,” Mauceri explains. “He invented a vast, epic palette, which represented the ancient worlds of Egypt and Rome.”

The film’s budget, he notes, allowed North “full play. His imagination was the only limit to what he wrote.”

Indeed, according to North’s widow, Anne-Marie, he worked for a year on the score and was “extremely proud” of it, employing an array of musical techniques ranging from a massive use of percussion to announce Cleopatra’s entry into Rome to avant-garde quarter-tones to create an unsettling sound for Caesar’s assassination.

North — composer of such scores as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Spartacus” — conducted seven minutes of “Cleopatra” at the Bowl for a September 1963 film-music concert.

But Mauceri — who has assembled nine sequences into two movements that, like the film, convey the story in two parts, “Caesar and Cleopatra” and “Antony and Cleopatra” — has no problem divorcing the score from its cinematic origins and playing it as “pure” music.

Locking the score to the film “would be like insisting that every time you wanted to experience Verdi’s ‘Aida,’ you not only had to see it fully staged but you had to see its original production,” Mauceri says.

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