Dario Argento’s “Opera” is long considered the Italian horror maestro’s last truly great giallo

By on October 4, 2019

Each Friday this month we’re highlighting a couple of the best of the ten horror cult film titles we’ve added to our ever-growing selection Night Flight Plus — that’s a total of forty films in October — and Dario Argento‘s Opera (1987), long considered the Italian horror maestro’s last truly great giallo film, is certainly worthy of being singled out for a closer look in this week’s selection of Horror Month: Gothic & Erotic Thrillers.

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Speaking of a “closer look,” Opera features some of Argento’s greatest and most gruesome bloody eyeball scenes (an eye plucked out by a raven, a pair of tortured eyeballs, etcetera), as well as memorable special makeup effects by Sergio Stivaletti.

Opera also features a killer soundtrack with music composed by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin, Brian Eno, Roger Eno, former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and more, as well as famous opera performances composed by Puccini, Bellini, and Verdi.

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The plot concerns a young opera understudy named “Betty” (Cristina Marsillach) who becomes an overnight sensation after the arrogant and ill-tempered opera diva “Myra Chekova” storms out of rehearsals and is almost immediately struck down by a car.

Betty takes her place in the leading role of “Lady Macbeth” in a lavish stage production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, but she also becomes the target of an obsessed stalker who hides his features under a mask and speaks to her as a disembodied voice over the phone.

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The stalker seems to have a lot of knowledge about Betty’s childhood and her mother’s relationship with a masked man which eventually led to torture and murder.

Our masked stalker turns out to actually a deranged serial killer, and begins methodically killing people close to Betty while forcing her to watch him do it by taping needles under her eyes so she’s forced to witness the murders.

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Opera also stars Urbano Barberini as an admiring police officer named “Alan Santini,” Daria Nicolodi as Betty’s agent “Mira,” Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni as Betty’s costume designer “Giulia,” William McNamara as Betty’s boyfriend “Stefano,” Antonella Vitale as “Marion,” Barbara Cupisti as “Signora Albertini,” and an uncredited Michele Soavi as “Inspector Daniele Soavi.”

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Dario Argento’s screenplay — written with Franco Ferrini — was based loosely on the plot of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Phantom of the Opera (Argento also later adapted the novel into a film in 1999).

Argento had, years earlier, also been approached to direct Verdi’s opera Rigoletto at Teatro Sferisterio, but his ideas about changing the opera’s main character “Duke” into some kind of vampirish pervert so concerned the producers of the project that they decided not to stage the production.

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This experience likely influenced the character of “Marco” (Ian Charleston), a horror film auteur who takes a job directing this staged opera performance of Macbeth, although it’s been reported that a lot of Marco’s scenes were cut from the too-long screenplay before the film went into production.

Read more about Dario Argento’s Opera below.

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Opera was budgeted at $8 million (U.S.), becoming the largest production Argento had ever undertaken, but the film was made when the director’s personal and professional life were in turmoil.

Actress Vanessa Redgrave quit the project before filming began — she was originally supposed to play “Signora Mara Cecova,” but when she proved to be unavailable, her character’s scenes were greatly reduced — and Argento’s releationship with actress Daria Nicolodi came to a bitter end.

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Nicolodi — who starred in many of his successful films, including Deep Red (1975), and was the mother of their child, Asia Argento — and Argento continued working together on this last film and so their problems must have proved difficult to deal with every day of shooting.

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Argento also had difficulties on-set with his leading lady, Cristina Marsillach, who was apparently very demanding.

It’s been reported that other actresses were considered, including Jennifer Connelly (star of Argento’s Phenomena) and Mia Sara, who had appeared as “Princess Lili” in 1985’s Legend, but today she is likely better known for her role as “Sloane Peterson” in the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the film she made instead of Opera.

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Argento’s father Salvatore — who had been quite ill for some time — also passed away during the production, which certainly darkened Argento’s mood.

Several years after after Opera had been released, actor Ian Charleston — a respected British stage actor whose films had included two consecutive Oscar-winners, Chariots of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982) — died in 1990 from AIDS, at the age of forty.

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Charleston was the first celebrity death in the UK openly attributed to the disease. Argento reportedly had a very difficult time with Charleston’s passing since he’d hoped to work with him again.

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Argento also had wanted to film much of Opera at Teatro alla Scala (La Scala) in Milan, but it was unavailable, and so he had to settle on working inside the Teatro Regio opera house in Parma.

For these reasons and likely more, Opera turned out to be one of his darkest.

The financially-struggling Orion Pictures were going to release a heavily-edited R-rated Opera in the U.S., but the film was never released theatrically in America, where it was finally released on VHS home video as Terror at the Opera.

In 2007, Blue Underground finally released a restored version of Dario Argento’s Opera on DVD/Blu-ray, using the original Italian vault materials, which is what we’re presenting uncut and uncensored on Night Flight Plus, along with other titles in Horror Month: Gothic & Erotic Thrillers.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.