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Monument to Praskovia Ivanovna Kovalyova-Zhemchugova, Sheremetev Palace
Portrait of Praskovya Ivanovna Zhemchugova-Sheremeteva, Nikolai Argunov, 1803.
Praskovia Kovalyova-Zhemchugova in a scenic costume for Les mariages samnites by André Grétry

 

 

Born to a serf family in 1768, Praskovia Ivanovna Kovalyova- also known as Zhemchugova, the Pearl - rose to be the prominent soprano of late 18th century Russia. Her family belonged to the Sheremetevs, one of the richest noble families in Russia at the time. As a young girl she moved with her family to the estate of Kuskovo outside Moscow, where she served as a chambermaid to Princess Martha Dolgorukaya, a relative of her master, Count Pyotr Sheremetev, who lived in the manor house. Praskovia's vocal talent was discovered when Count Pyotr and his son Nikolai were forming an opera company. After some training, she made her 1779 debut at Kuskovo as a servant in Andre Gretry's "L'Amitie a l'epreuve". Over the next 20 years, she was to gain renown in the Kuskovo Theatre, and later in Ostankino. It was around 1780 that she was given the stage name "Zhemchugova" ("The Pearl"). Praskovia performed a number of works, with her signature role probably being Elaine in Gretry's "Les Mariages samnites", earning praise from royalty including King Stanislaw August Poniatowski of Poland and Empress Catherine II, who, according to legend, gave her a diamond ring.
At some point in the mid 1780s, a romance developed between her and Count Nikolai in flagrant violation of societal taboos. After the death of Nikolai's father in 1788, Nikolai and Praskovia set up a private household in a secluded corner of the Kuskovo estate. Their unorthodox relationship soon became a huge scandal and the subject of gossip among aristocratic society. In 1798, Nikolai emancipated Proskovia, with freedom for her family soon following. Three years later, she and Nikolai married in a clandestine ceremony, albeit with the blessing of Emperor Alexander I. Praskovia's new-found status as Polish 'nobility', complete with genealogy and royal patent supplied by a well-paid forger, caused much high society grumbling, and a loud outcry from Nikolai's nephews, who realized that 'their' inheritance would now go to the descendants of serfs. On February 3, 1803 Praskovia gave birth to a son, Dmitry, but pregnancy and childbirth destroyed her poor health and she died three weeks later.