Opera: Caws and Effect

Opera directed by Dario ArgentoOpera directed by Dario Argento

Numerous friends have tried to get me to appreciate opera over the years; all these many attempts have failed. Call me a philistine if you like, but for me, opera has always meant a fat lady in a Viking helmet yodeling at full blast, or a bearded guy or off-putting prima donna shrilling away in a language that I don’t understand. Thus, it was with a feeling of decided trepidation that I approached Italian director Dario Argento’s 1987 offering, Opera. On the one hand, for this aspiring Argento completist, the film was a must-see; on the other hand, the film not only takes place in an opera house, but features, on its soundtrack, extensive samplings of Verdi’s opera Macbeth, performed by Maria Callas and other noted sopranos. Yikes! Well, as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Not only didn’t I mind the opera music in this film, but I actually (and I cannot believe I’m typing this) LOVED the piece of music that plays over the picture’s closing credits! How do you say “a freaking miracle” in Italian? Anyway, perhaps I only needed some incredible images, ghastly carnage and amazing camera work to help the music go down a tad easier. Happily, Opera dishes out all three, in spades!

In the film, soprano understudy Betty (played by Spanish actress Cristina Marsillach) gets her big break when the theater’s main attraction gets struck down by a car. Unfortunately, the curse of Macbeth holds true, and Betty’s triumphant debut soon segues into a nightmare that Ruby Keeler could never have imagined! Hours after this debut, a hooded madman breaks into her boyfriend’s apartment, ties Betty up, gags her, and tapes needles under her eyes, forcing her to watch the multiple stabbings that he/she inflicts on the hapless dude; the first of many similar incidents for poor Betty. In the history of the giallo film, rarely has so vicious and depraved a whacko been introduced to a flabbergasted audience.

Offhand, I can only think of the psycho in Paolo Cavara’s 1972 film Black Belly of the Tarantula (who not only kills his many victims, but injects each with a paralyzing poison before doing so) who compares to this opera nut, whose slayings are not only brutal, but must also be witnessed by another victim. As for these killings, the gorehounds out there should be well content with the various impaled head, knifing and scissoring sequences that the film provides, not to mention a horrendous tracheotomy AND the justifiably celebrated slo-mo shot of a bullet coursing through a peephole before crashing toward its intended victim, Betty’s manager (played by Daria Nicolodi, in her fifth of six films for the director).

Opera, besides boasting this celebrated shot, is, overall, perhaps the finest exemplar that I have seen yet of Argento’s skill with the camera. Indeed, his camera is rarely at rest, constantly probing, climbing, gliding, exploring, pivoting. Just witness that 360-degree pan around the opera house; the bottom-of-the-sink POV shot; the POV shot from behind the needles taped to Betty’s face; the shots of the killer’s beating heart; the sweeping trip through the AC ducts; and, most especially, the POV shot from a raven’s eye, as it circles around and swoops in the opera house. This last sequence may even top Hitchcock’s great avian POV shot above the flaming gas station in 1963’s The Birds, and that’s saying something! (Let’s not get into the patent ridiculousness of a raven remembering the murderer of a fellow raven and attacking that person in public!)

Opera is a genuine feast for the eyes, as it turns out, and yes, the ears, as well. It is a deliriously entertaining spectacle, beautiful to look at even when horrendous acts are transpiring on screen. I only wish that I could have seen this one in a theater back when. Between Argento’s camera magic and DOP Ronnie Taylor’s superb work, the film must have looked truly awesome in the cinemas. Oh … as far as the identity of that killer is concerned, my advice would be to not even try to guess. Like Argento’s 1975 classic Deep Red, Opera features a final act coda that should really take you unawares. And as to poor Betty, I CAN spoil things for you a little by revealing that she IS alright physically by the picture’s end; her mental condition, I’m afraid, is anybody’s guess!

The Opera DVD that I just viewed, from Westlake, looks just fine, by the way, but only sports a skimpy photo gallery as an extra. From what I hear, the DVDs from Anchor Bay and Blue Underground are far preferable. All in all, though, I’m quite pleased that I decided to spend this night at the opera. Maybe I won’t be so timid when I finally catch up with Argento’s 1999 take on The Phantom of the Opera; when it comes to warbling sopranos, perhaps there is hope for me yet…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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