Whatever cinematic spells Dario Argento mislaid after 1987, he casts them in this, his last truly definitive work of horror. Today, Opera plays out like a valedictory curtain-call that deliberately revisits and burnishes many key themes (voyeurism, naivety awakened, mother issues) and motifs (classic masked killer, eye close-ups, blood as art) that the boggle-eyed Italian auteur had been ramping up over a 17-year glory-run around the giallo sandbox. He pretty much blows it to smithereens here, but that didn’t stop him coming back for more to ever-diminishing returns.
Fortune may favour the brave, but it seriously passes on plucky young opera understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) who thinks her big chance has finally come when she’s called upon to step into the lead soprano role in a technically audacious production of Verdi’s Macbeth, directed by the overbearing Marco (the late Ian Charleson, channelling Argento himself). All goes well at first, but hiding in the rafters is a hooded figure ready to rain on her parade. After murdering a stage hand by means of a coat hook, the killer breaks into Betty’s apartment and snuffs out her deeply irritating English boyfriend, forcing her - and us - to witnesses every second of it by taping rows of needles beneath her eyelids. Nasty indeed, and rather familiar to young Betty who has a strange feeling this might be the same fiend who murdered her mother many years earlier…
Opera is an exercise in extremity, always strongest when shunting things into overdrive. In this respect Argento chose his subject well: the unnerving intensity of focus that characterised his 1970s films and seemed to be blurring somewhat in Phenomena (1984) comes raging back, driving the story along and - until the rather strange ending - never letting up. It’s there in the exquisite photography and stunningly choreographed camerawork that looks amazing in this re-graded 2K restoration from Cult Films. It’s there in the cacophonous soundtrack that comes fully alive in this edition, taking full advantage of the original THX-certified mix that pummels our ears to submission during macabre killings that scale new heights of sadism for Argento. Most of all, it’s there in the recurring centrepiece of the film, the cursed stage production of Macbeth that must rank as Argento’s greatest technical accomplishment. If you’ve never been to the opera, the POV shots of demonic ravens swooping down over a packed auditorium to pluck out terrified eyeballs while a storm-lashed apocalypse rages on stage will ensure you never do.
The ending has always been divisive: it feels not so much tacked-on as cut in from another film entirely, but it doesn’t undo Argento’s grandiose goodbye to the commercial and critical good times. The man himself pops up in typically dour current form in a new interview, but the real highlight of the extras package is a 40-minute 1987 making-of that puts us right in the eye of the storm.
Special Features: Aria of Fear (interview with Dario Argento), Opera Backstage (behind the scenes documentary), Restoration featurette
OPERA / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: DARIO ARGENTO / SCREENPLAY: DARIO ARGENTO, FRANCO FERRINI / STARRING: CRISTINA MARSILLACH, IAN CHARLESON, URBANO BERBERINI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW