In many respects the last full throttle Dario Argento film to date, Opera pushes his stylistic tendencies into overdrive right from the opening Steadicam shots through an opera house from the point of view of a temperamental diva. As melancholy and vibrant as a fond farewell to the '80s should be, the storyline encapsulates many of the successful elements from Argento's previous films while packaging them in a disturbing, sexually twisted package laced with some unforgettable murder sequences. Who could ask for anything more?
After an unfortunate car accident makes a career casualty of opera star Mara Cecova, young understudy Betty (Marsillach) is pressed into service as the new lead by her director, Marc (Ian Charleson), a horror movie pro trying to move upscale. Betty's agent, Myra (Nicolodi), feels nothing but enthusiasm for her young star in the making, and indeed Betty's debut turns into a smash success. Unfortunately an usher is murdered in one of the theater boxes during the performance, indicating that one of Betty's new fans may have homicidal tendencies. Inspector Santini (Barberini) investigates the mysterious goings on, while Betty's celebratory but unsuccessful opening night tryst with the stage manager (McNamara) turns nasty when the killer arrives and performs gruesome acts while pinning Betty's eyes open with taped needles. Terrified and confused, Betty plunges into a disoriented state in which she acts as the pawn of a devious mind with violent ties to Betty's past.
Many of Opera's highlights have already passed into gorehound legend, including a jaw-dropping slow motion bullet sequence that cannot be adequately described in words. As with most of Argento's other films, Opera is also a treat to watch as his camera performs ungodly acrobatics: swirling up staircases, thumping along with the killer's palpitating heartbeat, and swooping through the opera house itself from the point of view of a raven. Most complaints about the film center on its bizarre, appropriately overheated ending, a daffy riff on Red Dragon that begins with a tongue-in-cheek homage to Phenomena and winds up on a disturbingly ambiguous note. The preceding climax is actually more difficult to justify, as it features more logic loopholes than the rest of Argento's oeuvre combined. The soundtrack is equally daring and likely to turn off inexperienced viewers as it weaves back and forth from Claudio Simonetti's haunting, Goblin-style music to lashings of heavy metal and classical opera. Beautiful, shocking, frustrating, and thoroughly entertaining, Opera has only become more fascinating with time and easily deserves a spot as one of Argento's most revealing and accomplished efforts.
The video history of Opera is one of the most tangled and confusing in the director's career so far. Some necessary spoilers from the film have been included here for clarification, so anyone who has not seen the film would be well advised to skip down to the next paragraph. And now, let's proceed. The film was originally released in Italian theaters for Christmas, but the changing attitudes of the public meant that its graphic violence and adults-only rating kept most of the target audience away. Almost all of the gory highlights were quickly removed, and it was reissued soon after with that same butchered cut marking its video debut on Italian VHS. Missing were most of McNamara's death, the scissor tracheotomy performed on Demons 2's Coralina Cataldi Tassoni, and the raven eyeball swallowing. Meanwhile the film's original English dub was greeted with laughter by exhibitors, so Barberini's original fey dubbed voice was re-looped, though alas this left much of his climactic monologue difficult to decipher. Orion picked up international distribution of the film and changed the title to Terror at the Opera, allowing frustrated Argento fans to finally see the forbidden gore courtesy of RCA/Columbia's gorgeous full frame laserdisc. Alas, this version was also heavily compromised as Orion, planning an American theatrical release, removed several expository passages (the perfume pouring into the sink, several linking bits of footage and dialogue, the scene between Charleson and his girlfriend, and the entire "happy/crazy" epilogue with Betty shuffling through the grass, to name but a few). The first full, uncut version of Opera (under the revised title) was released on VHS in the US in an unrated edition from Southgate; in fact, apart from those unlucky few who checked out the slightly edited R-rated cut at Blockbuster Video (remember them?).
Now here's where things get complicated. Opera was filmed in Super 35, so the aspect ratio has varied wildly on both the big and small screens. Orion's intended theatrical edition was struck in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which exposed a huge amount of dead space and distracting details at the top and bottom of the frame, such as Marsillach's underwear throughout her bed scene with McNamara. The same version was used for the mildly cropped Japanese laserdisc, and the Italian DVD release from Cecchi Gori (which looks terrific but has no English subtitles, alas) is also from this "opened up" 1.85:1 edition. However, a bootleg tape of the first English dub has circulated for years in Argento's preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the director himself has exhibited the film this way at several public appearances. The "scope" version is a markedly different experience and really feels more like an Argento film. The opera sequences in particular benefit from the tighter framing; just check out the shrouded figures immediately before the "raven attack" sequence, or the rectangular stage framing during Betty's first stage appearance.
Anchor Bay's DVD edition, later reissued verbatim from Blue Underground, contains the second, revised English dub, letterboxed at 2.35:1 version. Despite the THX certification, the image is too bright during normal playback. However, viewers with a "black enhance" control on their DVD player or a good grasp of the contrast and brightness controls on their TV can tweak the image until it looks just as vibrant and rich as the Japanese laser. The DD and DTS-ES audio mixes actually sound pretty much the same as the theatrical surround version; rear channel activity is surprisingly sparse given the aggressive nature of the film, offering mostly ambient support and some musical carryover during the louder passages, along with the expected squawk or two from the ravens.
Despite the minor reservations about the image brightness and soundtrack, the Anchor Bay disc is a solid introduction to the film and, as the most easily accessible for many consumers, will suit the casual horror fan just fine. (Note that the first pressing was defective, but replacements are available directly from the company.) The imaginatively designed menus lead to some eye-popping (ahem) extras, beginning with the mediocre European trailer (in 2.35:1) and Orion's excellent, striking trailer for the scrapped U.S. release (at 1.85:1). Oddly, Southgate's marvelously well-edited video trailer is not included. The disc also contains a very good 36-minute documentary, "Conducting Opera," featuring on-camera interviews with Argento, Nicolodi, cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, Simonetti, and a particularly good Barberini, whose appealing English-speaking voice would have been much better suited for his role than either of the dubbed options. All of the participants have notable things to say about the production and offer candid observations about the difficulties behind the scenes, including the tempestuous behavior of a noticeably absent Marsillach. Interestingly, no one mentions another actress problem; according to Argento expert Alan Jones, Vanessa Redgrave reportedly backed out of playing Cecova at the last minute, leaving a voice over and subjective camera to play her role instead. The documentary also includes the Argento/Taylor car commercial filmed prior to Opera, which had previously been available only on PAL VHS video. However, owners of the Italian DVD will be pleased to note that only that version contains the film's original, "coming for Christmas" theatrical trailer designed for Italian audiences.
Anchor Bay's limited edition of 30,000 units offers a double-disc set of Opera with the CD soundtrack. The second disc incorporates the complete Simonetti score (previously available only on vinyl from Cinevox) as well as the two heavy metal songs by Steel Grave. However, the opera selections from the original album have been dropped in favor of the Daemonia "Opera" theme remix (also featured as a music video on the first disc), accompanied by the Rollerball Daemonia cue from their earlier albums and Simonetti's overused "I'll Take the Night" song from The Versace Murders. The score proper is really the best reason to spring for the set; even without a cue listing, it now completes the entire music availability from Opera on CD when paired up with Cinevox's official CD release (containing the Brian Eno cues and other musical odds and ends).
A fascinating pair of alternate audio versions of Opera can be heard on the UK DVD release from Arrow, which has only marginal text extras but is nevertheless an essential part of any Argento digital library. Featuring more colorful picture quality (albeit still on the flat side) and similar scope framing (16:9) to the Anchor Bay presentation, the DVD contains the original dub track with Barberini's prissier voice, which fits far more organically into the soundtrack. Note that the music mix is also slightly different, featuring yet another variation on the radio music during the first eye-taping scene. Best of all, the DVD contains the original Italian audio in a very robust surround presentation which even outclasses the Italian DVD. The front and rear speakers are the most active of any available mix, and the disc also includes optional English subtitles, making this the first legitimate subtitled edition of the film's most satisfying aural rendition. Completists will also note that only the Italian version concludes with a male narrator relating most of Betty's pro-nature speech at the end, though it's still translated in the first person for some reason. (The subtitles appear to be translated from the Italian track, not transcribed from the English one.) Several passages of music in the Italian version are nonexistent in both English ones; for example, during Ian Charleson's bedroom conversation with his girlfriend in which they read the early newspaper reviews, Simonetti's "Crows" can be heard playing on the radio in the background, and Betty's stroll through several hallways of red curtains after the air duct sequence and Ian Charleson's Hamlet reverie are accompanied quite audibly by Simonetti's "Confusion." In the English version, both scenes are severely muted down nearly to the point of silence. Also in the Italian version, an ironic song gurgles on the radio during Betty's first needle experience, though here the only music during the scene is a barely audible Brian Eno piece. For PAL-friendly viewers, the UK disc offers an invaluable opportunity to evaluate Argento's masterpiece in two different incarnations, both effective and worthy of enjoyment on their own terms. (Note that the packaging advertises the film under its alternate Terror at the Opera title, an alteration also made to the otherwise intact Italian opening credits.)
After that the film managed to sit out the entire Blu-ray wave for many years, finally turning up first in HD from Japanese label Kadokawa in the summer of 2015. Unfortunately that release was pretty underwhelming, undeniably a new scan but suffering from an interlaced presentation, shoddy encoding, and, perhaps even worse, a mono-only presentation of the English soundtrack.
It took over a year for a decent Blu-ray to finally turn up from Koch Media in Germany courtesy of a three-disc mediabook set containing the usual illustrated German liner notes booklet inside. Oddly enough, this release came just after Argento mounted his own real-life production of Verdi's Macbeth in Italy, complete with controversial lashings of gore and nudity. Thankfully, none of the participants wound up getting hit by cars or stalked by maniacs, at least as far as we know. The Koch Blu-ray and first DVD contain the main feature, which can be played in either the full-length version (107 minutes) or the abbreviated export cut (95 minutes), both derived from the Italian negative with opening and closing titles in that language. The uncut version features DTS-HD English (the first dub with Barberini's British accent), Italian, and German audio options in stereo; the German one sounds very thin and reedy, but the other two are very robust apart from some occasional hissiness in the English dub (which has been inherent to that version on home video). There's also a German-only audio commentary, which won't be of much use for English buyers. The shorter export cut is presented with German or English DTS-HD stereo options, featuring the second, flatter dub for Barberini's character and the best sound quality of the bunch. The transfer itself is from the same HD master but presented more effectively with better handling of grain, color, and black levels, plus it's progressive. Definitely the best version out there to date, though there's still room for improvement should anyone be allowed to go back and do a fresh 4K scan of the negative someday.
The second DVD contains seven Freak-o-Rama featurettes not on the Blu-ray, all in English or Italian without English-friendly options, featuring interviews with Argento (21 mins., touching on his 2015 production of the Verdi opera), Simonetti (30 mins.), writer Franco Ferrini (36 mins.), and makeup artist Sergio Stivaletti (15 mins.), plus an overview of Macbeth and its cursed history with Enrico Lucherini (13 mins.), a 36-minute critical study by film historian Fabrizio Spurio, and a 25-minute Q&A with Argento at a German screening in 2006. All of these feature optional German subs, so if you have a familiarity with all with the language, you might still be able to muddle through. That DVD is rounded out with two different music videos for the film's theme, one shot on the film set with Simonetti and a later one performed by his band Daemonia. The film is also slated to make its American Blu-ray debut from Code Red in the near future, so it should be interesting to compare.