Supervia, Laye. Cenerentola, Bohème (3), Traviata, songs. Moving. And Conchita’s delectable! Highly recommended. (1934). 83m. English. B&W.
PAL VHS Only
Michael Tanner, reviewing in Classic CD
“Evensong is a thinly disguised account of the last years of Nellie Melba, an act of revenge by her secretary. It not only makes riveting viewing, but in a crucial sequence we see and hear the great Spanish mezzo Conchita Supervia, stupendous in 1934, two years before her tragically early death. The waning prima donna is played by Evelyn Laye, herself an important popular singer in musicals.” 4 stars out of a possible 5
John Steane, reviewing in Opera Now
“Evensong is the adaptation of Beverley Nicholls’ scarcely forgivable novel based on the life and character of his employer, Nellie Melba: a vivid minute or two of Conchita Supervia as the young rival is the most celebrated of its attractions, but (till the last few awful seconds) it is a genuinely well-made film with Evelyn Laye following most poignantly the development from young beauty to old battle-axe. Of all single moments in these videos, the one which remains with me most hauntingly is a movement of Melba’s hands and a meeting of eyes with her manager as they stand together watching while the rising star radiantly rehearses her Musetta, about to eclipse the ageing Mimì. That’s show-business.”
Alan Blyth, reviewing in Gramophone
“The noted 1934 film Evensong, derived from Beverley Nichols’s story, itself based on Melba’s career, features Evelyn Laye as student, star and elderly prima donna and, in a bit-part, Supervia, allowed to sing extracts from her repertory. Both are, in their different ways, charmers, but the samples of Supervia are the more important as a precious souvenir of her art. The copy here is excellent.”
John Ardoin, reviewing in The Dallas Morning News
“This 1934 movie is a thinly disguised biography of the great Nellie Melba. It is not much as a movie, but it is important because it offers the only filmed look at Conchita Supervia, one of the great enchantresses of opera. She is seen for only about 10 minutes, but it is enough to explain her prodigious posthumous fame among record collectors.”
Albert Innaurato, reviewing in Opera News
“Laye has the first part of the film to herself. She is lovely and plays the termagant with force, without sentimentality. Unfortunately, as the aging diva, she marches into the stage rehearsal and is brought face to face with ‘Baba’–Conchita Supervia. And Supervia comes hurtling out of the frame like a Mediterranean scud missile. She sings Musetta’s waltz a tone down. Irela: ‘Good high note.’ Baba: ‘I love my high C.’ Irela: ‘Why don’t you sing it, then? That was a B-flat!’
“Busting out of a Little Bo Peep gown, Supervia is shameless, unhinged and unforgettable. She gets to have a tantrum, to triumph at a curtain call. The footage is incredible. Supervia’s sexuality is so strong as she dances a little flamenco, pops her eyes and flaunts her chest (vocal and otherwise) that we’re in an entirely other galaxy of being. Sending up Latin spitfires in general and herself in particular, Supervia has the quintessential stage performer’s gift of being simultaneously outside, commenting on her character, and inside, doing full justice to a fictional creation.
“One is apt to yell at the screen, ‘We want more Supervia!,’ just as the opera house audience in the movie yells for Baba. It’s not enough, and it’s horribly frustrating, but it’s priceless. And to think that she died shortly after! The unique magic of an irreplaceable performer makes this one of the great opera-themed films.”
Bert Wechsler, reviewing in Video Review
“This rarely seen, English-made movie is one result of secretary-turned-writer Beverley Nichols’ obsession with and exploitation of his one-time employer, the great Australian soprano Nellie Melba. As adapted from Nichols’ novel and play, it is touching, effective and full of music.
“This is also one of the few movies made by Laye, the long-popular star of British stage musicals between World Wars I and II. She gives a great performance as Maggie O’Brian, from her student days through her reign as the ‘Queen of Song,’ into her declining years as an unpleasant old lady who should retire but won’t. The movie’s first half-hour, notable for Laye’s beauty, is close to every young singer’s story, but then the plot takes more original turns. The viewer, and not just the opera lover, soon becomes involved and, indeed, engrossed. This is a human drama that holds up beautifully.
“The legendary Spanish mezzo Supervia makes a vibrant appearance late in the movie. [She sings “Musetta’s Waltz,” a Cenerentola excerpt and three Spanish songs.] And German actor Kortner (best remembered for 1928’s Pandora’s Box and 1945’s The Hitler Gang) ages sympathetically as Laye’s manager and deeply loving friend.”
Based on the life and career of Nellie Melba, Evensong gives us a young Irish soprano who takes the stage name Irela in tribute to her native land (Nellie Mitchell, of course, took Melba from Melbourne) and then goes to Paris to study with a great singing teacher, who is not named Marchesi (but we know better). She then effects a highly successful debut, in La bohème, has an affair with a nobleman, is disappointed in love and goes on to a career of some 40 years of stardom despite failing powers.
The film is the most famous biography of an opera star to have emerged from Britain and is well-deserving of its reputation. The star of the movie, Evelyn Laye, was the major female star of the London musical stage between the wars. She is a superb actress, whose impersonation of the vain, proud and nasty elderly soprano could hardly have been bettered by Bette Davis. Left with nothing but a failing career and overshadowed by a much younger singer (Supervia), Laye really plumbs the depths of her role during the last third of the film and comes up with one of the best filmed dramatic performances of any soprano.
Love interest is provided by Carl Esmond (also the romantic star of Tauber’s Blossom Time), an extraordinarily handsome man and a good actor but one who never became a major name despite a 50-year career in dozens of films made in several countries. (You may remember him as very much the star of Cat Man of Paris, but it would be more observant of his memory if you didn’t!) What he lacked was the charisma of an actor so very much like him–Anton Walbrook. Most important to opera lovers may be the appearance of Supervia as Irela’s usurper, only two years before the great Spanish mezzo’s untimely death. She isn’t given much dialogue but gets to sing several pieces. Of extraordinary interest is the tenor who doubles as both Alfredo in the Traviata “Brindisi” and as a Venetian gondolier. He is none other than Browning Mummery, who sang Rodolfo to the real Melba’s last-ever Covent Garden Mimìs and was surely the finest lyric tenor Australia ever produced. —Joe Pearce, President of The Vocal Record Collector’s Society