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Image Entertainment presents
Aria (1987)

Preston: Have you ever had Ecstasy with a man?
Gilda: Ja, many times.

- Buck Henry, Beverly D'Angelo

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: August 18, 2002

Stars: John Hurt, Theresa Russell, Buck Henry, Beverly D'Angelo, Garry Kasper, Anita Morris, Elizabeth Hurley, Peter Birch, Bridget Fonda, James Mathers, Linzi Drew, Sophie Ward
Other Stars: Leontyne Price, Robert Merrill, Anna Moffo, Jussi Bjoerling, Enrico Caruso
Director: Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford, Bill Bryden, Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Franc Roddam, Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell, Charles Sturridge, Julien Temple

Manufacturer: Ritek Digital Video
MPAA Rating: R for (nudity, sexuality, suicide, violence)
Run Time: 01h:28m:26s
Release Date: August 20, 2002
UPC: 014381470123
Genre: opera

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-B+B D+

DVD Review

While opera is often dismissed as too highbrow for ordinary folk, Aria proves that it can be made accessible and reinterpreted in a variety of ways that lends the art form a new vitality. Essentially, this picture presents ten arias or selections from operas, and ten noted directors make short films interpreting or dramatizing the music. The results are sensuous, funny and even startling at times.

There are three essential tacks that are observed in the short films. The first is a fairly straightforward rendering, which also is the least interesting. The second view takes the thematic materials of the operas and runs with them in modern reinterpretations. Finally, there are the shorts that merely use the music as a springboard to something completely new and often dazzling. In the first category we find the connective piece and finale, drawn from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. John Hurt takes the stage as the doomed Canio, for an audience of one, Sophie Ward. Also in this vein is Bruce Beresford's interpretation of Erich Korngold's Die Tode Stadt. This latter is mostly notable for the early appearance of a pre-surgery Elizabeth Hurley; it's astonishing how little she resembles the Hurley of today.

More interesting are the thematic leapfrogs. Most notable among these is the notorious opening episode, drawn from Verdi's assassination opera, Un Ballo in Maschera. Nicolas Roeg not only transplants this to an attempt on the life of King Zog of Albania in 1931 Vienna, but has the audacity to cast Theresa Russell as King Zog. There are any number of fascinating aspects to this violent segment, but I was most drawn to the close resemblance between Russell and Stephanie Lane, who plays the King's love interest; it's almost as if the love that draws the King into the crosshairs is a pure narcissism, perhaps speaking to Roeg's view of royalty in general. In a similar vein we find Julien Temple's reinterpretation of Rigoletto as a comic story of unfaithful spouses, featuring the always delightful Buck Henry. How can you dislike a picture featuring an Elvis impersonator singing La donna e mobile? Franc Roddam interprets Wagner's Tristan und Isolde as a modern Liebestod in Las Vegas, providing Bridget Fonda with a sensuous debut that movingly combines love, sex and death in the desert.

The five segments that leave the subject material behind are somewhat uneven. Robert Altman's entry, a play on Rameau's Les Boreades is a dull and monotonous single-concept that wears out its welcome long before the music ends. Derek Jarman gives Charpentier's Louise a dreamily evocative setting that is a beautiful meditation on youth and love lost, through the reveries of an aged woman. While visually attractive, it's a bit light on substance. Cryptic is the order of the day when Charles Sturridge takes an aria from La Forza del Destino by Verdi and sets against it British children joyriding through the London streets. His imagery leaves one wondering whether what was just seen is purely fantasy or perhaps a television program the children are viewing. Godard takes Lully's Armide to undreamed-of places in an erotic obsession with the male body. Set in a gym, it features two young women drawn to the physiques of bodybuilders who seem completely oblivious of them, even as they caress them and disrobe completely. The result is a surprisingly elegaic tribute to love, lust and longing, with an edge of violent frustration. But the best is surely Ken Russell's take on Nessun Dorma from Puccini's Turandot. Initially plunging the viewer into a bizarre series of surreal images focusing on bejeweled and oddly painted women, Russell slyly draws us in until he reveals his true subject in an unforgettable and even shocking manner. To say any more would be to spoil one of the greatly enjoyable moments of film in the 1980s.

In all, the films hold together quite well, with enough variation to keep the viewer's interest. The wildly different styles and the necessity of keeping the whole moving give the work a life of its own that propels it forward with a relentless velocity. The many moods engendered provide a roller coaster ride of emotions, and there's almost always something interesting visually to draw the viewer in. While not wholly successful, it's an ambitious project that's definitely worth checking out. Opera purists be warned: on occasion, the music is clipped off or rearranged to suit the necessity of the scene. Only a few lines of dialogue and occasional sound effects intrude upon the score, however.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture is quite good, with intense color and sharp detail for the most part, except when there is intentional softening. There is plenty of grain and thus it might have been better served by a higher-bitrate RSDL transfer, but it still looks quite good indeed. Hardly any source print damage is visible; blacks are intense and there are good shadow details as well.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Variousyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The main improvement to the re-release of this Image disc is the addition of a 5.1 audio track. The original 2.0 is also included for comparison. The 5.1 mix brings the music much more forward, to good effect. The source recordings are of variable quality, with the Rigoletto segments sounding quite compressed and slightly distorted. The Caruso version of Vesta la giubba is obviously intended to sound like an old 78, with plenty of crackle and noise, so that's not a complaint. There's also some minor crackling during the end titles, which doesn't seem to be intentional. However, overall the sound is pleasing and has good range and presence. If you already have the original, though, it's probably not worth the upgrade.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 10 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: EastPack
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Alas, there are still few extras to be had, other than a booklet insert with locations and filming dates and cast lists for the films. The disc also contains filmographies for the ten directors; although they're denoted 'selected' filmographies, they appear to be fairly complete. Subtitles would have been nice to further analyze the text of the music against the visuals, but it's possible that the directors resisted such a notion, since no subtitles were provided in the theatrical release.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

Aria is a visually striking and almost always fascinating take on opera by ten different directors. As omnibus films go, it's one of the better ones. With a newly upgraded 5.1 audio track, it's a picture that belongs in any music or film lover's DVD collection.


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