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Evensong is based on the personality of the great Australian diva Nellie Melba (1861-1931).
Just as Helen Mitchell of Melbourne, Australia, adopted the name "Melba" as a tribute to her hometown, so Evensong's Maggie O'Neal of Tralee, Ireland, is rechristened "Irela" when she begins her operatic career. Like her real-life counterpart, Irela is a classic prima donna, headstrong and determined to let nothing stand in the way of her success.
Evensong is adroitly directed by Victor Savile, with fluid camera work and interesting dissolves carrying the action forward. The script is rather sketchy, reducing Irela's climb to international fame to a long montage of orchestras, opera house facades and gold coins piling up - without once ever showing (or letting us hear) Irela's voice! And the chronological story takes a sudden leap from 1917 to 1934 with no further explanation than a roll of years on the screen.
Evelyn Laye gamely tackles the role of the tempestuous, egotistical Irela, and she sings quite charmingly, even if her voice is more suited to operetta than grand opera. (It seemed to me that she occasionally went slightly off key, but this may have been an effect of the poor soundtrack on the copy I saw).
One wishes the film's script gave her more opportunity to show us why Irela was so obsessed with her career, since she ultimately seems to have nothing but bitterness toward the world.
The film features Laye in a fully-staged "Libiamo" from La Traviata, and a solo concert recital. Laye/Irela's performance style on stage is musically good but quite stiff and emotionless,like the real-life Melba. Although this may have been another intentional nod to Melba, it does not make for exciting viewing. The camera also constantly cuts away from her when she is singing, which further compromises her ability to connect with the film audience.
Evensong has a first-rate supporting cast: Emlyn Williams in an early film role as her first, doomed lover George; Fritz Kortner, a great star of the German stage and screen (he was Louise Brooks's co-star in Pandora's Box), now in exile from the Nazis, as her obsessive manager who loves only her voice.
And best of all, legendary Catalan soprano Conchita Supervia as Baba L'Etoile, the singer who ultimately supplants Irela as the 'queen of song.' Supervia performs "Quando m'en vo" from La Boehme quite beautifully. Her Musetta has all of the vibrancy that Irela's performances lack.
Later in the film, Supervia sings bits of several Spanish canciones and even breaks into a brief flamenco, but the camera keeps cutting back and forth from her triumphant backstage party to Laye's big final scenes. As noted by another reviewer, Supervia (who had married and Englishman) died in childbirth just two years after Evensong, so these few minutes on film are really a precious document of her performances.
I saw Evensong on a poor-quality VHS copy borrowed from my local library. It was obviously transferred from a well-worn 16mm print. The film certainly deserves a better showcase - some enterprising DVD distributor should look into doing a good quality transfer from the best original elements.
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