L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Lina Cavalieri in costume for the title role of Massenet's "Manon", photographs by Reutlinger, circa 1903

Cavalieri was famously brunette, but here wears a wig, giving the appearance of eighteenth-century powdered hair.

Natalina "Lina" Cavalieri (25 December 1874, Viterbo – 7 February 1944, Firenze), Italian opera singer and actress, always known as much for her great physical beauty as for her voice and acting ability; she was called opera's most beautiful soprano, even “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World”.

Orphaned at fifteen, she was made a ward of the state and sent to an orphanage. But she soon fled the nuns and joined a traveling theatrical troupe. (The early story varies.) Before long she turned up in Paris, where her beautiful face and figure brought her most welcome attention and where she found work singing at one of the city's café-concerts; she was an overnight sensation. From there she performed in music halls and similar venues throughout Europe, particularly in Paris and St. Petersburg, all the while continually working to develop her voice. She wed the Russian Prince Alexandre Bariatinsky who paid for lessons with the greatest teachers, and with whom she had a son. She made her opera debut in Lisbon in 1900; it was not a success.

The tiara may be a costume piece, but the necklace and earrings are almost certainly the real thing; divas of the age
usually wore their own - often spectacular - jewelry on stage, a fact that was much publicized and commented on.

The Prince chose this moment to divorce her. But she persevered and was soon to be found singing the great soprano roles at the world's finest opera houses, even premiering works by Massenet and Puccini. She spent two seasons - 1906 and 1907 - at the Metropolitan Opera, performing with the likes of Caruso. She was a great celebrity, lavishly paid, famously bejeweled, her appearances on stage most notable for how she looked, what she wore and how she wore it.

Again in New York in 1910, she married a member of the Astor family, but they were already separated by the end of their honeymoon after it became known that her husband had signed over his entire fortune to her. After her second divorce, she was again much in St. Petersburg. But she retired not long after and, by the beginning of World War I, she had become known as a published expert on beauty, had opened her own beauty salons in France, and created her own cosmetic lines and perfumes; her business continued successfully well into the Twenties.

Still strikingly beautiful, she'd also begun to make films in her native Italy. After that country entered the war, she went to the United States and made a handful more. All told she made about eight or nine films, several of which are now considered lost. Before her retirement she'd married her third husband, a French tenor; they divorced in 1927. With her fourth husband, an Italian wine merchant, she returned to Italy, living in a villa outside of Florence. She published her autobiography in 1936. In 1944 an Allied bombing raid destroyed her home. Hearing the American bomber approach, Cavalieri, her husband, and servants ran for the air-raid shelter on the grounds of the estate but, as newspapers later recorded, she decided to run back to the house to gather up her very valuable jewellery. The servants inside the shelter all survived but Cavalieri and her husband were killed; she was buried under the rubble of her own home.

(With a poignant irony, the eponymous heroine of "Manon Lescaut" - Puccini's Manon; Massenet's plot differs slightly - is arrested and seals her fate because, pursued by soldiers, she lingers too long collecting her jewels.)


I'm not entirely certain these portraits were taken as Massenet's Manon, because she also sang the role of Puccini's flighty and tragic heroine; she gave the American debut of "Manon Lescaut" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with Caruso as Des Grieux, and with the composer in attendance. In this last image she's wearing a similar but different costume than that above; is this a different Manon, or just another dress?

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous photos!
    She was considered the very model of perfection by the Duchess of Rutland, whose daughters (among them Lady Diana Manners, later Cooper) were more or less schooled to absorb all they could from this paragon of beauty and style.
    Reading about it in Lady Diana's memoirs was one thing; seeing this cache of images quite another.