Dario Argento's Opera should be considered the Italian maestro's summary film, the final grand statement of the themes and imagery that have dominated his work since The Bird with the Crystal Plumage—preoccupations which, when they've been trotted out at all in subsequent films, have been handled in increasingly less convincing fashion. Opera is also Argento's most flagrantly self-reflexive film, an inclination toward tacit self-criticism that had begun in earnest with his post-Inferno return to giallo material in Tenebre.
The contentious relationship between “the seventh art” and its more culturally prestigious predecessors takes center stage from the opening scene. Argento's alter ego here is Marc (Ian Charleson), a successful horror director whose attempts to impose some radical new techniques on a production of Verdi's opera Macbeth are mocked by the production's soon-to-be-dethroned reigning diva (represented only in subjective POV shots): “Birds on stage, back projection, laser beams…What is this, an opera or an amusement park?” Such a chary assessment of innovation is countermanded later by costume designer Giulia (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni): “At least in film, when you come up with something new, they applaud you.”
Argento's films always have a touch of the histrionic about them, from an allegedly lethal encounter in an empty theater in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to the parapsychology conference that opens Deep Red, whose billowing red velvet curtains get a nod here when Betty (Cristina Marsillach) passes through a number of them late at night in the deserted opera house. This tendency toward “staginess” is overtly parodied in the first of Opera's multiple climaxes: Marc's idea to flush out the killer involves sending an immense cage of ravens crashing through the elaborate stage set during a performance, a ploy that quite literally brings down the house.
Seeing and (dis)believing are central to Argento's work, most often under the guise of a fleetingly glimpsed detail that's misinterpreted, but never before has the filmmaker played upon the notion of voyeurism quite so compellingly. (Not for nothing does Opera's opening shot show a scene on stage reflected in a raven's eye.) The film's killer forces Betty to bear witness to his crimes in a particularly nasty fashion, tying her up and ensuring that her eyes stay open by taping a brace of needles under each. What's more, this quasi-religious, entirely fetishistic tableau plays into the murderer's peculiar sexual pathology: erotic roleplaying as Freudian primal scene. One outrageous set piece mordantly mocks the very act of voyeurism, when Betty's agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi), is shot through the eye while peering into a peephole.
Another trick of the eye informs Opera's fiery finale, an act of bodily bait-and-switch that Argento lifted from Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, before the epilogue shifts the scene to Switzerland. Here Argento doubles down on the reflexivity: Marc's in-camera trickery, showing a housefly held in check by a fishing lure superimposed upon the lush greenery of the landscape, plays like a nod to—or maybe a swipe at—the effects work in his prior Phenomena. As Betty flees across the verdant rolling hills (in what seems like a rank parody of The Sound of Music), Argento even recycles a needle drop from Phenomena's soundtrack. But the final moments of Opera are entirely sui generis: a demented embrace of Rousseau's “state of nature” and a cheeky repudiation of “man's inhumanity to man.”
Scorpion Releasing's new 2K scan looks phenomenal, as Opera's images contain considerably more information in each frame than was evident on earlier home-video editions of the film. Significant application of color correction boosts the film's sumptuous visual palette, especially those ubiquitous splashes of green and red. Throughout, fine details are greatly enhanced and black levels tenebrously deepened. The repurposed Master Audio surround track has some effective separation up front, even though the rear channels don't get much of a workout. The stereo mix better reflects the original THX track, squarely putting the emphasis on the film's crazily eclectic soundtrack, with its abrupt shifts between operatic arias, churning heavy-metal music, and more ethereal ambient and prog-rock cues courtesy of Brian Eno, Bill Wyman, and frequent Dario Argento composer Claudio Simonetti. Dialogue sounds a bit boxy throughout, but that, of course, can be attributed to the original postsynch dubbing process.
In an interview from 2016, Argento admits that Opera is now one of his favorites, laments Cristina Marsillach's real-life diva behavior, and describes being attacked in the face by one of the ravens. There's also some great behind-the-scenes footage presented in split-screen; particularly impressive is the elaborate crane rig attached to the opera house's ceiling that was used for those swooping raven's-eye shots. William McNamara talks about being cast based exclusively on his looks, hating his dubbed voice (a posh British accent, no less), splitting his time between Argento's film and a miniseries for Italian TV, and how Quentin Tarantino's love of Opera almost landed him a role in Reservoir Dogs. He also has an amusing anecdote about Vanessa Redgrave's nonappearance in the film, which is why reigning diva Mara Cecova is shown storming out of the theater via those bravura Steadicam POV shots. Finally, three trailers capture very diverse ways that the film was marketed.
Dario Argento's late masterwork Opera remains a real eye-opener, and it's never looked better than in this new Blu-ray presentation.