An ode to bucking the artistic status quo.
Soon after the 1985 release of Phenomena, the Macerata Opera Festival invited Dario Argento to stage Verdi’s Rigoletto in the open-air space of its enormous Sferisterio di Macerata. But Argento’s projected approach – which turned a key character into a literal vampire and a revered work of art into a monstrous bloodbath – was too untraditional for the fest, who ousted him from his position in favor of another director and their more conventional take.
The Italian filmmaker took this ousting to heart, as is clear from his cinematic follow-up, Opera (called Terror of the Opera when referring to a US version that edits out the epilogue and a handful of gruesome scenes). Its plot surrounds a series of murders during a production of Verdi’s Macbeth staged by horror film specialist Marco (British actor Ian Charleson, in his final role before dying of AIDS-related causes), who is an obvious stand-in for Argento. Like Argento’s attempted production of Rigoletto, the avant-garde version of Macbeth that appears in the movie faces harsh criticism for attempting something radical. Yet the production’s general bizarreness and (fictional) overwhelming success convincingly argue that his take on a full-length opera would have expanded the genre’s limited audience and left an unforgettable impression. Memo to the Macerata Opera Fest: Firing a visionary director was a big mistake. Signed, D.A.
More than a straightforward defense of his own work, Opera is an ode to bucking the artistic status quo. Its Macbeth is a strange thing to behold, heavy on crows, guns, fog, jewels and naked women behind billowy sheets. It also prominently features an enormous digital clock for no apparent reason. In other words, it’s signature Argento, bejeweled with an impulsive yet symbolic sort of randomness.
And, lest we forget, there actually is a whole film here, too, not just a few glimpses of a stage production. The protagonist isn’t Marco but Betty (Cristina Marsillach), a young soprano Lady Macbeth with a hazy past and a penchant for meditation tapes. She is the one who witnesses all of the murders. But the killer, whose identity is kept hidden from us until the final act, doesn’t want to hurt Betty. Instead, he wants to convert her to a lover of violence by exposing her to horrific acts, since he was romantic partner to Betty’s sadistic, homicide-encouraging mother. If that’s not convoluted enough, his conversion strategy involves restraining Betty with ropes and taping a horizontal row of razor-sharp needles under her eyes, so as to prevent her from closing them. It’s an even more elaborate follow-up to the pried eyelids of A Clockwork Orange in that it takes an already uncomfortable image and adds to it an extra layer of threat.
Such loaded eccentricities extend to its audiovisual elements, including a great deal of inspired camera work and special effects. One magnificent sequence finds the camera inhabiting a raven’s point of view as it spins in giant circles around a crowded opera house auditorium and swoops ever closer to the nest-like heads of audience members. (What the hell kind of crane did they use to achieve this effect in those pre-drone, pre-GoPro days?) Another bonkers moment shows a slow-motion bullet moving, along with glittering shards of glass, through a perfect-sized peep hole to penetrate the eye of the beholder.
Opera’s use of sound is also startling, as is clear from the opening credits, where a raven’s grating cry continuously interrupts a diva’s virtuosic rehearsal. Or is it the other way around? Along the way, we’ll get blasts of hair metal (a genre that also made a prominent appearance in Phenomena), eerie ambient music and new-agey prog, not to mention Argento’s usual flesh-tearing sounds, like scissors knocking against a woman’s teeth and snipping open her throat.
The point of these textual features, both narrative and audiovisual, is to shake us awake to imagination’s undeniable power, its ability to sculpt terror and beauty out of sticky darkness and the possibility of death. The movie’s obsession with eyes turns out, in true giallo fashion, to be a red herring: it’s not the eye that sees but the mind. Our first hint of this appears in the film’s use of close-ups aligned with Betty’s point of view. Even though she is several feet away from, say, the about-to-be-butchered wardrobe mistress, the choking and stabbing unfolds at finger’s length. Betty imagines up close what is actually distant – distant as the dream memories that she watches without the use of her eyes at all.
The same can be said for us as viewers: we imagine light projected onto a screen as reality and involute props as presenting real danger, whether that danger manifests through immersion in the spectacle ourselves or through the potential immersion of impressionable others, who might be convinced to perpetrate acts of violence. Argento, ribbing a bit, mocks these fears with a supremely anti-vision image that appears near the finale: a plucked eyeball hanging from the mouth of a raven, who heroically attempts yet fails to swallow it. Peepers can be chewed to pulp, it attests. Pictures remain.
Opera’s rebellion – against the status quo, against expectation, against the privileging of sight – culminates in its extraordinary ending, which finds Betty rummaging through some Alpine wildflowers in the immediate aftermath of her final escape. There, she discovers a lizard lying on its back, trapped beneath a stick. “Go free!” she commands, nudging the creature out from its prison. Argento offers us the same encouragement. If it’s possible to envision something different, something beyond the eye, why not be liberated?