Dario Argento must be one of horror’s most operatic auteurs. Few directors can lay claim to such a consistency in the blending of image and music with the Grand Guignol theatrics of his most celebrated murders. He is also a great director of women and writer of female characters – this was, after all, one of the reasons he was brought on as a writer for Sergio Leone’s epic Once upon a Time in the West – in a grand Italian tradition that stretches back, at least, to the prima donnas of Puccini and Verdi. But it was only after he stopped working with his regular musical foils, Ennio Morricone and then the various members of Goblin, that the occasional oblique references to opera composers in his films (the great dorm house in Phenomena, we are told, once belonged to Richard Wagner) evolved into the full-scale quotation of actual operatic arias.
His most recent work, Giallo, opens in the lush surroundings of Turin’s legendary Teatro Regio with a burst of recitative from Mozart’s late opera seria, La clemenza di Tito; his Phantom of the Opera re-tread features the overture from Gounod’s Faust as well as the famous habanera from Bizet’s Carmen; even The Stendhal Syndrome manages to squeeze an aria, played on a little boom-box, into one of its murder scenes.
In 1987’s Opera, however, Argento came to believe his choice of quotation had rather got the better of him. Against the advice of many, Argento insisted that the opera being rehearsed in the film’s story should be Verdi’s Macbeth, and during filming, Argento suffered a number of misfortunes that led him to believe he may have become the victim of the famous curse of ‘The Scottish Play’. Major actors pulled out of the film at the last minute, minor actors were accidentally killed on set (crushed by a car), Argento’s proposed marriage to Daria Nicolodi was called off, and his father died suddenly during production. ‘But I felt,’ says an ever sanguine Argento, ‘that I had started with Macbeth, so I had to finish. And anyway, there could be no ravens in Cosi Fan Tutte.’
Apparently, the part of Marco in the film (played by Ian Charleson in his last screen role), the horror film director turned opera director, was based on Argento himself. A hint perhaps, now that film directors from Patrice Chereau to Werner Herzog have taken the helm at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, that Argento is waiting for the call from La Scala.