Opera Meets Film: The Story of Natalina Cavalieri in ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Woman’

By John Vandevert

What happens when you mix incredible beauty with a knack for theatrical allure, a stellar work ethic, as well as a drive to succeed? Of course, you produce someone who’s situation can never get the best of them. Within the annals of operatic history are many figures for whom their upbringing did not promise them anything that was afforded them later in life. It is too easy to look at others and forget the ugly that comes with extreme beauty. Thus, when the veil of attractiveness is pulled back, we can see a completely different side of that individual that may not have been apparent from the start. 

I tell you all of this in order to set the scene for this month’s Opera Meets Film where we will be looking at the 1955 comedy bio (graphical) pic (ture) “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman” by American director Robert Z. Leonard. Co-produced by both French and Italian houses, the film is an embellished account of the dynamic life of Italian soprano drammatico Natalina “Lina” Cavalieri (1874-1944). Featuring a stellar cast including celebrated actress Gina Lollobrigida in the title role alongside many eminent actors of the day including opera singer Gino Sinimberghi, the film takes a satirical view of her real relationship with lover Russian Prince Aleksandr Baryatinsky (Prince Sergio in the film). 

Cavalieri’s life was incredibly full, hectic, overwhelming, yet extremely indulgent and pleasurable. Despite her acclaim and many appearances throughout the world as a soprano opera singer, her name is hardly known today. Having sung alongside countless well-known singers like Enrico Caruso, Francesco Tamagno, Antonio Scotti, Titta Ruffo, and Fyodor Chaliapin, outside of some paintings (one of which is owned by the Metropolitan Opera House), this biopic, books, and some recordings, there is little mention of her name today. The Italian title of the film is an homage to one of her many nicknames, another being “the maximum expression of Venus on Earth” by the Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio.

The film had a three-country premiere. It was shown in Italy in 1955, France in 1956, and finally in the USA in 1957. However, since then the film has been relatively neglected. In Italy, however, it has become the most watched film of all time. For the sake of interest, let us pivot towards the very sensational life story of Cavalieri and her many experiences.

Take a listen to Natalina Cavalieri’s rendition of Giovanni Capurro’s famous song “O Sol Mio,” recorded in 1911.

The “Kissing Primadonna”

Cavalieri was born in Viterbo, Italy in 1874 to a very poor family. Her father was a construction worker and her mother was a seamstress, both working in lower-end jobs with little respect by their employers and the public alike. Her siblings had to begin work when they were young doing various jobs to keep the family afloat. Cavalieri was no exception, although her talent for singing quickly lifted her out of menial labor like her siblings. To make money, young Cavalieri sang stornelli (or Romani improvisational poetry) and as her parents began noticing her talent, she started taking voice lessons with the voice teacher Arrigo Molfetta. At the age of 17, this relationship ostensibly bore a son but it is rather hazy. What is known is that by her early 20s Cavalieri was becoming very well known for her voice and beauty.

In the 1890s, Cavalieri had begun a theatrical career in regional theaters, partaking in variety shows where she acted, danced, and sang. However, it was her alluring figure and captivating charm that gave her early success, although not all can be chalked up to looks. Because the turn of the 20th century was a period of great social, technological, and cultural change around the world, she is considered one of the main female protagonists of the Belle Epoque, along with other female entertainers like ballet dancer Cléo de Mérode. Her many nicknames were coined around this time due to the fact that she used a corset to achieve an hourglass figure which was the main trend for female beauty at the time. In 1897, her career in the Russian empire began, a contract at the “Krestovsky Garden” restaurant ushering in her fame.

Somewhere around the turn of the century, Cavalieri moved to Paris, France, and began training as an opera singer while working as a variety show singer to make money. Soon, however, she embraced the operatic world and in 1900, made her debut as Nanetta in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Much of her acclaim came from her sensual stage presence which, during an era of verismo, was a nice change of pace. It was during this period when Cavalieri would begin singing everywhere, making debuts alongside colleagues of opera’s “golden years.” In 1901, she performed at the Aquarium Theatre in St. Petersburg and five years later debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in the title role of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” with Caruso. That same year, she also debuted at the Mariinsky Theatre in the title role of Massenet’s “Thais.” In 1908, Cavalieri married Robert Winthrop Chandler but quickly divorced.

By the 1910s, Cavalieri was a force to be reckoned with when it came to her operatic popularity, especially within the Russian Empire. Her controversial relationship with Bariatinsky, with whom she ostensibly had one son Alexandre Bariatinsky, Jr, was not supported by his family and never ended in marriage. This did not stop him from giving her things during her Russian career. In 1913, she married tenor and actor Lucien Muratore who convinced her to leave the theater. Soon after, Cavalieri published a book about her beauty secrets called, “My Secrets of Beauty,” and started a cosmetic line along with a fragrance called “Mona Lisa.” At some point, she divorced Muratore and married another man.

It was the dawning of World War I that finally pushed her to leave the opera world and embrace the world of acting and film. Starting with silent films alongside her Belgian director and close friend Edward José, Cavalieri completed some of her first cinematic projects. These are essentially lost, however. Some of these included operatic themes such as “Manon Lescaut,” although others like “Bride of Death” were more dramatic than operatic. Around this time, she married  journalist Paolo d’Arvanni and eventually moved back to Italy. However, given Italy was in the throes of war, she returned to the USA to do several more films before eventually coming back during WWII. Although older, she helped out the war effort as a volunteer nurse. Unfortunately, on the seventh of February, 1944, Cavalieri and her husband were killed in an Allie bombing raid. 

She was buried at the Verano Cemetery alongside her family in Rome. 



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