Opera meets cinema: the question of the use of opera in Dario Argento’s “opera”

Shot by Italian director Dario Argento in 1987, and praised for its creative gore and dramatic use of tension, the giallo (Italian crime thriller) “Opera” recounts the bloody escapades of a masked killer as he tracks down an operatic soprano during a production of Verdi’s Macbeth in an opera house.

Shot on stage and with fourth-wall-defying actors and singers playing themselves, the film uses opera as its structural core while utilizing operatic repertoire throughout the film. Featuring many respected actors and actresses from all over Italy, Spain and even Scotland, the film was released on DVD in 2002, but since then has been all but forgotten.

“Opera” is a prime example of where good ideas are treated for ineffective execution, and proves that when it comes to entertainment, sometimes using opera isn’t the best strategy.

The basics


The film begins in the iconic, velvety neoclassical interior of the Teatro Regio di Parma in northern Italy, whose history is linked to the eminent figures of Verdi and Toscanini as well as Bellini (whose fifth opera “Zaira”) was used for the building. 1829 first). Primadonna Mara Cecova, Lady Macbeth in an avant-garde production at the opera, is accidentally injured in a car accident outside while arguing with the director. So, Betty (the stunt double) steps in and, after some initial hesitation, her performance goes wonderfully.

However, an unnamed character had managed to sneak in and watch his performance, and when confronted by a stagehand, the individual murders them, and so begins the “horror” of the film. Flash to Betty’s boyfriend’s apartment. Suddenly, the masked man bursts into the apartment and, after a struggle, binds and gags Betty while forcing her to watch him kill her boyfriend, after which he flees.

Betty remembers the same man who killed her mother. Rather than do the sensible thing (go to the police), she instead goes to her manager to look for clues to the man’s identity. The next day, Inspector Alan Santini (the masked man!) questions the opera employees about the murder and death of three house crows. Later that day, Betty’s costume is found shredded with a gold anniversary band. Suddenly, the killer finds Betty and forces her to watch him kill Guilia (a client who found the group), and flees again before being caught. When Betty returns to her apartment, she meets Santini (the killer!) who promises to send protection, Inspector Soavi shows up to guard her. However, Betty’s agent Mira comes to meet her and says there is a Soavi in ​​the lobby, prompting the two to hide until the first Soavi leaves her apartment.

Well, things go from bad to worse when Mira answers the door looking through the peephole that she killed, and after the killer breaks in, Betty narrowly escapes by climbing into a mouth. ventilation with the help of a neighbour. That night, Betty meets Marco at the opera to discuss the plan to reveal the killer, and during the performance of “Macbeth”, crows are released which instantly begin attacking the killer, pecking out an eye.

Santini evades capture and later kidnaps Betty who reveals the truth to him. He had been in love with his mother, who had ordered him to kill other women. But as his demands became more brutal, he killed her out of desperation. After seeing Betty, who looked identical to her mother, her murderous tendencies returned. In order to fake his death, he sets the room on fire, but Betty manages to escape.

Betty and Marco then fly to Rome, and the plot thickens when it is revealed that Santini did not die as Betty thought but escaped unscathed. Again, instead of doing the sensible thing, she runs into the woods where Santini miraculously finds her and chases her (how? Don’t ask), and as Marco tries to play hero, he is stabbed and dies. But Betty manages to hit Santini on the head with a rock and as he is taken to jail, Betty chooses to wander into a field (alone) and frees a trapped lizard in a symbolic declaration of newly won release from her past.

The “opera” of the film

The film’s soundtrack is comprised of both classic lyrical works and a contemporary repertoire of well-known names in both categories. The film opens with a diegetic rehearsal of Verdi’s “Macbeth”, specifically the gruesome moments immediately after Lady Macbeth stabs King Duncan due to Macbeth’s “weakness” in seeing an image of the dagger in the conclusion of the first act. As Lady Macbeth agrees to do the deed, Macbeth (sung by bass Michele Pertusi) is heard singing in trembling fear, “Oh, that hand! The ocean couldn’t wash my hands! while a deranged raven sings incessantly (a premonition of the story to come) while Lady Macbeth (sung by Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz) answers in anguish: “Look! My hands are also stained. A splash of water and they will be clean again. The act too will fall into oblivion.

An incredibly powerful opening to the film, the first third of the film details the messiness of Parma’s production of the opera, using the third act scene “Witches Chorus” to further punctuate the prescient nature of this film’s operatic repertoire. The use of Verdi’s Macbeth takes it a step further, as we are presented with stealthy viewing of Betty’s killer (Lady Macbeth cover) during her shameless Act One Letter aria (no, not Tatiana’s), “Vieni! Embarrassed you. And after several interruptions, a few murders and some very aggravated crows, Lady Macbeth’s climax slowly builds and blossoms into a Verdian release of musical pressure, Betty receives a round of fierce applause, the camera pans across a pistol in hand, another symbol of unquenchable bloodlust, deeds done in the name of passion and the inevitability of fate.

But the presence of the operatic repertoire continues with Argento’s use of highly recognizable pieces.

First, after the gruesome murder of Betty’s boyfriend, she rushes to her manager’s (Marco) apartment for her safety and to try to figure out what just happened moments before. After settling in, Marco decides to search the street for clues, but when he sees a neighbor with a strange man in the hallway through the peephole and becomes suspicious, the iconic builds up to the climax of “La bel dì vedremo” from Puccini’s tragic opera “Madama Butterfly” is heard as Betty opens the door and Marco leaves (sung by Mirella Freni). lackluster, and it’s a shame Argento didn’t do more with this moment, because all Betty does is look at something in her hand and walk to the bedroom to sit down.

In any case, the next “opera” moment comes (of course) after the murder of the seamstress Guilia, prompted by the discovery of a golden wedding ring with a specific date. After seeing her have her throat slit, Betty rushes to her apartment where the murderer (Santini) promises to send an agent to keep her. As she lies on her bed listening to a tape, the sonic opening of the aria “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s first act (sung by Maria Callas) can be heard, the contextual union being the desire for life to return to normal, that patience to be exercised, and for revenge to be withheld before its time. The scene is split in two and demonstrates Betty’s wish to restore tranquility and restore peace and security. The air is later used after his manager is killed by the keyhole and the killer hunts for Betty in his apartment.

The final lyrical quote comes from three moments, Verdi’s opera La Traviata, two arias ironically and vindictively linked to the “hunt” of the killer (“Sempre libera” and “Amani Alfredo”), and a return to Macbeth a by Verdi. the performed variation of the repetition from the beginning. As a ploy to find out who the killer is, as Macbeth worries about being mistaken for King Duncan’s murder and Lady Macbeth asks Macbeth to be brave, the crows are released and chaos ensues, Santini ( murderer) gets one of his eyes pricked out while trying to shoot Betty with his gun.

As can be seen here, certain operatic works were used as a subtextual conduit for the character’s emotions and an oracular device that, when understood, helps explain the plot’s resulting motivations and actions.

The aesthetic ethics of “opera!”

A point that I think is essential to address here is the ethical implications of using opera in this way, of contextually coloring an operatic aria or scene with subtext that follows the film but not the opera.

While not a major concern for those who are already familiar with the opera quote and have had a chance to familiarize themselves with it, new viewers will ultimately find their understanding of said operatic literature marred by the treatment of the film, forever shaped to how they first heard. Thus, when they attend an opera, they will no longer hear the work for what it is (and should be) but rather for what they have interpreted it incongruously in the context of said film. This may be the compromise needed to make opera “more accessible” to the general public, but why does accessibility mean an abuse of context?

What I mean here is that even though “Opera!” from Argento! uses the lyrical repertoire and the genre itself in an effective and dramatically impactful way, it is at the expense of the music that he does so, because Verdi, Puccini and Bellini do not make themselves heard in their own context. Rather, they are subordinate to a plot which, while echoing in many ways the opera’s respective narrative plots, is inevitably misaligned enough to confuse the less informed.

So I pose a question to my readers: should directors think about the ethical implications of using opera in a film when many of their viewers may not have prior knowledge of opera, and be easily fooled into thinking a tune is about X when it’s really about Y, and maybe something completely opposite to how it’s described?

The second point of the ethical question here is the essentialization of the lyrical repertoire to the kitsch displays of superficial drama and the vapid parodies of the lyrical literature of yore.

In many ways, this film is the epitome of lyrical kitsch, with Verdi’s use of “Macbeth” being one of sordid displays of over-the-top drama and ostentatious displays of cinematic excess rather than anything with any real symbolic and allegorical value.

Personally, I find the film rather awkward in its use of opera, both in its plot and in its musical life, as the infusions of contemporary music seem both antithetical to the operatic repertoire, while the idea of a murderous and enamored ‘Phantom’ of the Opera” plays the stereotype of opera’s false relationship to the realms of musical theatre, an erroneous assertion if ever there was one.

Despite Argento’s best efforts to use opera as the central pillar of his film, a production of “Macbeth” gone wrong (a theatrical “curse” of Shakespeare’s first production in 1606) and the diegetic use of opera music as the culmination of dramatic climaxes, I am unhappy because the music does not receive enough attention and explanation in a way that provides the viewer with a real sense of understanding of its use .

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