'The Pearl' by Douglas Smith,
reviewed by ROBERT ANDERSON
I have stood disconsolate many an hour outside the great wooden palace of Ostankino, creation of Count Nicholas Sheremetev with magnificent opera house as its core and raison d'être. I tried every trick known to my halting Russian and meagre pocket to try for entry to a building evidently under heavy restoration. But the site was guarded as securely as when the palace was originally built. I knew something of the extraordinary story that linked Russia's wealthiest aristocrat to a serf soprano and had hoped to understand more. Thanks to Douglas Smith's meticulous research, I at last feel I have been granted admission to Ostankino and been much moved by the tale he has to tell.
Praskovia Kovalyova (1768-1803) was the daughter of a sometimes drunken Sheremetev blacksmith. At eight years old she was selected for life in the great house at Kuskovo and her education began. It became apparent soon enough that she was highly musical and possessor of a remarkable voice. Count Nicholas (1751-1809) began his Grand Tour in 1770 with a year of law at Leiden, went on to England and the Epsom races, the delights of Chatsworth and Bath, then inspection of the lunatics at Bedlam. But Paris was the key to his future. He was presented to Louis XV at Versailles, though it was the theatre that possessed him. He saw Grétry's Lucile and The Deserter by Monsigny; he also took cello lessons from a M Hyvart.
The day after his return to Russia, Count Nicholas dined with Catherine the Great, who made him a chamberlain in 1775. Much favoured by the empress, he was never invited to her bed; indeed he seemed to prefer a French harlot. His father Count Peter had blazed a theatrical trail for Nicholas, with notable performances at three of his establishments. In 1777 he handed their responsibilitry to Nicholas and Praskovia began singing lessons. Her début when not yet eleven was as Hubert in Grétry's Friendship put to the Test, and she became known as 'The Pearl' in the operatic company. As Galatea to his Pygmalion, she may have become Nicholas's mistress before she was fourteen. She performed at Kuskovo before Catherine the Great in 1786 as Eliane in Grétry's The Marriage of the Samnites and was rewarded with a diamond ring.
Copyright © 10 July 2008
Robert Anderson, Cairo, Egypt