OPERA (1987) Standard Edition Blu-ray
Director: Dario Argento
Scorpion Releasing

Dario Argento turns cinematic gore into an aria of violence in OPERA, on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing.

When diva Mara Cecova – a role originally intended for Vanessa Redgrave then rewritten to be shot largely from a Steadicam POV – literally breaks a leg on the eve the opening night's performance of Verdi's MACBETH, understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is thrust onto the stage to make her debut. Betty is a smash hit but she has also gained the attention of a psychotic fan who starts gorily murdering members of the production while forcing Betty to watch by taping needles under her eyes to keep her from closing them. Suspects include sadistic director Mark (Ian Charleson, CHARIOTS OF FIRE), his model girlfriend (THE CHURCH's Antonella Vitale, Argento's girlfriend at the time), adoring stage manager Stefano (William McNamara, COPYCAT), wardrobe mistress Julia (Coralina Cataldi Tassoni, DEMONS 2), and Betty's own agent Mira (Daria Nicolodi, DEEP RED); but even Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini, DEMONS) seems a little bit off as he consults horror film director Mark for his informed perspective on the mayhem ("I think it's unwise to use movies as a guide for reality"). As the body count builds, Mark comes up with a very theatrical way of exposing the murderer who has also run afoul of the live ravens used in the production, and the closing night promises to be memorable.

While some of Argento's fans are of the opinion that things started to go downhill with PHENOMENA, OPERA may actually be Argento's last consistently entertaining and visually-ravishing work that satisfies from the first viewing (with his later TRAUMA, THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, and arguably MOTHER OF TEARS improving with reassessment while the likes of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, DRACULA 3D, and GIALLO may be all but unforgivable). OPERA is certainly is more extravagantly visual than his more recent work and the various absurdities are more comfortably couched in an overall off-kilter atmosphere. Ronnie Taylor's roving cinematography is ravishing throughout and, like PHENOMENA, the score is an interesting mix of heavy metal and atmospheric instrumental tracks from former Goblin composer Claudio Simonetti as well as Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor (who both contributed to PHENOMENA) and Roger Eno along with opera tracks from Verdi, Puccini, and Bellini (some of the same heavy metal tracks were reused in the Simonetti-scored PRIMAL RAGE). Despite rumors that Argento had a difficult time directing star Marsillach, she proves to be one of his most memorable leads and is well-matched by Charleson. The initial dubbing of Barberini's performance was laughed off the screen at Cannes, but his deeper, raspier revoicing lacks character. The raison d'etre of the film are memorably gory set-pieces, and the film certainly delivers with impressive technical proficiency. Tassoni – like McNamara, an American dubbed with an English accent – gets the best line of the film when she derides Mark as being someone who thinks "Verdi was a twit and Shakespeare a total asshole!" Although OPERA lacks the quirky character of BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and the leads lack the rapport of those in CAT O'NINE TAILS, OPERA is up there with these and Argento's other top tier works such as DEEP RED, SUSPIRIA, INFERNO, and TENEBRE.

Initially picked up by Orion for an aborted theatrical release as TERROR AT THE OPERA, the film first showed up in English on Japanese laserdisc from Columbia with Dolby Surround audio, but the transfer was cropped to fullscreen – the film was shot in Super 35mm with 1.85:1 hard mattes but intended for 2.35:1 matting, so the cropping was not so severe – and the film represented the Orion cut at 95 minutes (gore was intact because it had not been submitted to the MPAA before the theatrical release was cancelled). Southgate Entertainment released the film intact at 107 minutes in 1991 on VHS (along with a Blockbuster-friendly R-rated edition). Anchor Bay released the film in 2001 in a two-disc DVD/CD soundtrack edition featuring a THX-approved anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer with English DTS 5.1 EX, Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround tracks that was a big improvement despite somewhat grayish black levels (the first pressing was unplayable on some players and crapped out at the layer change on others but a replacement program rectified the situation) along with a single-disc edition which Blue Underground would reissue in 2007. An interesting alternative popped up in the UK from Arrow Films in 2003 featuring an Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track and English or Italian subtitles while the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English track was the original dub that premiered at Cannes and was laughed off the screen (the Anchor Bay featured the second dub which revoiced Barberini). In 2010, Arrow issued a two-disc edition utilizing the same transfer while offering the unrated version with the 5.1 redub and the Cannes dub and Italian tracks in 2.0 stereo as well as a reconstruction of the Orion cut with both English dubs in 2.0 stereo.

Derived from a 2K scan of the original camera negative, OPERA's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen presentation is not without issues but it may be the best the film has ever looked on home video with rich reds, deep blacks, enhanced detail in the production design ands well as improved textures in the wardrobe. The make-up effects and prosthetics – executed by Franco Casagni (THE STENDAL SYNDROME) and Rosario Prestopino (DEMONS) – are quite convincing compared to the more obvious mannequin doubles of Argento's later films, and this may be due to the budget and Taylor's lighting (although the effects inserts may have been shot by second unit photographer Renato Tafuri under the direction of Michele Soavi). As mentioned on the internet, there are a few very short moments of instability in which the trembling of the image calls attention to itself in the lines of some symmetrical compositions and the flaring of light sources that a stabilization pass might have rectified. On the other hand, with Blu-ray releases in Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and the United States, we are quickly running out of opportunities for better alternatives unless the film gets remastered again for UHD streaming (Shameless in the UK is collaborating with CultFilms on a Blu-ray edition but it remains to be seen how much work and expense they will put into it). The Dolby Stereo track's surround activity may have been somewhat compromised by the hasty redubbing, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo is of good quality with some directional effects and a comfortable if not overly aggressive surround ambience. The default DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, on the other hand, sounds a bit more recessed and even muffled at times with the reverb sounding even more artificial than it did originally.

While Scorpion has promised a packed two-disc limited edition in the future, the standard edition distributed by Music Box Films is no slouch with a high bitrate dual-layer encoding and two nice extras. The first is an interview with director Argento (21:41) who regards OPERA as one of his best films, discussing his love of opera music and his opportunity to stage a production subsequently (although not his earlier staging of RIGOLETTO that was abandoned). He covers ground familiar to Argento fans, with the opportunity to direct a Fiat commercial in Australia leading to his acquaintance with award-winning cinematographer Taylor, being refused the use of La Scala for the location and instead using the Regio Theatre in Parma, the various camera rigs used in the film, the difficulty of working with Marsillach, working with Charleson who was in a car accident during the shoot, and the ways in which the story could be an AIDS parable. Although he has denied in previous interviews that there is an autobiographical aspect to the horror director character, Argento here refers to it as "anti-biographical" in that his conception of the character is not himself but how the public perceives Argento. The clips from the film are in Italian, and it is mentioned that Argento provides the film's narration of Betty's voiced-over thoughts (although they are voiced by Marsillach herself in the English version). Exclusive to the US editions is an entertaining interview with McNamara (16:44) who was in Rome shooting the miniseries SECRET OF THE SARHARA when he met Argento who cast him on his looks. He recalls his friendship with Charleson, shooting his death scene, and the difficulty of getting paid his per diem, as well as his attempt to abandon the production when he was up for a role in BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. The disc also includes the U.S. theatrical trailer (1:48) from the aborted Orion release, the export trailer (1:50), and a lesser-seen Italian teaser (1:28). (Eric Cotenas)