Yale University Press has announced the release of Douglas Smith's The Pearl (Yale University Press 2008, ISBN 978 03001 20417), the story of a girl serf who rose to become one of Russia's greatest opera stars and the aristocratic master who defied all tradition to marry her.
Peopled with a cast of colourful historical figures, and set against the glittering backdrop of grand opera in the Imperial Russia of the late eighteenth century, author Douglas Smith tells the true story of the master-serf relationship that evolved into a great love affair - one that has continued to fascinate Russians up to and beyond the Soviet era, when the issue of master and serf had a major political resonance.
The Pearl is a tale that has the content of an operatic historical novel, but is in fact a true story based on the author's access to archival materials that have lain untouched for more than two centuries. It presents arguably the most complete and accurate account of the illicit love between Russia's richest aristocrat, Count Nicholas Sheremetev (1751-1809), and Praskovia Kovalyova (1768-1803), his serf, who would become the greatest opera diva of her era.
Blessed with a voice of surpassing beauty, Praskovia began her musical training in Sheremetev's operatic company as a young girl. Like all the members of the troupe, Praskovia was one of the aristocrat's serfs. Unlike the others, however, she utterly captured her master's heart.
The book reconstructs Praskovia's stage career as 'The Pearl', and the heartbreaking details of her romance with Nicholas - before and during their secret marriage - and the outrage of the aristocracy when news of the marriage finally emerged. It concludes with Praskovia's death just days after delivering Nicholas a son, and the unyielding despair that followed Nicholas to the end of his life.
Douglas Smith's new book paints a picture of the rise of opera during the reign of Catherine the Great, and of the ways in which opera in Russia was shaped by the serf system and the mores of Russian aristocracy. Above all, though, it tells the story of the power of love against all odds.
Smith is a resident scholar at the University of Washington and the author of books such as Working the Rough Stone: Freemasonry and Society in Eighteenth-Century Russia and Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin. He has worked as a Soviet affairs analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, contributes reviews to the Times Literary Supplement and Seattle Times, and has served as an interpreter for the late Ronald Reagan.
Posted: 5 May 2008
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