Thursday, May 8, 2008

"The Pearl"

Douglas Smith is a Resident Scholar at the University of Washington and the author of the prize-winning books 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 applied the Page 69 Test to his new book, The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, and reported the following:
How do you write the biography of someone who left behind no letters, no diary, and no memoirs? Where do you find her, flush her out into the open, make her talk?

This was the task facing me when I began researching the life of Praskovia Kovalyova, a serf born in 1768 who became Russia’s greatest opera singer, performing as “The Pearl,” and the mistress and later secret wife of her noble master, Count Nicholas Sheremetev. Theirs is one of the greatest love stories in European history, and also one of the least known, in part because we know so little about Praskovia’s life. None of her personal papers have ever been found. It’s possible that none every existed, although it has been suggested that the Count destroyed whatever she may have written after her death in 1803 as part of his effort to shape her legacy.

To write such a life requires adopting strategies different from those used by biographers blessed with subjects with rich paper trails. It requires visiting repeatedly the places where they lived, scrupulously studying their portraits, and immersing oneself in the day-to-day affairs and mundane details of the world they inhabited.

And it requires exhaustive panning for gold. With no personal archives forming a rich vein and an easily followed path of research, this biographer has to move mountains of dirt, slowly sifting and hoping to catch a tiny glimmer of his heroine. The search for Praskovia led me to hire a dozen researchers. Together we spent nearly six years examining thousands of archival documents across Russia on the trail of this spectral serf diva.

Our efforts were well rewarded, and we were fortunate to retrieve many long-lost gems that go a long way to retrieving her life. One of them is on p. 69. It is one of my favorite, for it allows us to actually hear her voice, a voice that has not spoken in over two centuries. No other sound can be as sweet to the biographer’s ear --

These years were the most productive of Praskovia’s career, filled with never-ending rehearsals, performances, and the demands of learning new roles. Between 1784 and 1786, she appeared in six operas: The Three Farmers by Nicolas Dezéde, L’infante de Zamora by Paisiello, The Parting, or the Hunters’ Departure from Kuskovo, a comic opera written for the Sheremetev theater, Grétry’s The Marriage of the Samnites, and The Beautiful Arsene and Aline, Queen of Golconde by Monsigny. Seven other operas and comedies premiered on the Sheremetev stage during these years. The names of the performers are not known, but it seems likely that Praskovia sang in some, if not all, of them. Some of Praskovia’s sheet music for a few of these operas, bound in soft marbled covers, has survived. An unknown hand has marked in the score for The Beautiful Arsene the parts for “Parasha,” “Arina” (“The Sapphire” Kalmykova), “Andrei” (Novikov), and “Anushka” (Anna “the Emerald” Buianova). The music for Monsigny’s Rose and Colas has instructions penned in specifically for Praskovia (“Parasha, sing this vaudeville 3 times”) and minor changes to her arias to tailor them to her voice. The music for Joseph Haydn’s Stabat Mater has also survived, with notes to Praskovia and a few others.14 These old pages even offer clues to how Praskovia talked. The music for Nicolas-Marie Delayrac’s Nina is marked in places for Praskovia to drop the broad unstressed “o” of her youthful Yaroslav accent for the more common sounding “a” (kagda for kogda, gavari for govori) and to soften her hard “ch” (shto for chto, kaneshno for konechno).
Read more about The Pearl and the author at Douglas Smith's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue