Set in the late nineteenth century, the opera tells the tale of a Russian pawnbroker and his wife who has just committed suicide by throwing herself, clutching a holy icon, from the window of their flat. Her body is laid out and her husband is prostrate beside it, wondering what drove her to take her lfe. The action flashes back to crucial episodes in their
A Gentle Spirit was written immediately after finishing my opera Therese, commissioned by the Royal Opera House for performance in 1978.
Gerard McLarnon, the librettist for both operas, suggested that I read the Dostoievsky short story. The dark, brooding character of this extraordinary drama immediately suggested musical ideas, and we constructed a highly ritualistic and condensed opera from the somewhat rambling character of the original Dostoievsky.
The music is at once characterised by a slightly out of tune minor third, which emphasises the claustrophobic nature of the story. The music is punctuated by seven 'remembrances' of the girl's suicide, taking her husband cyclically back from the present, to his first meeting with her in the pawn-shop, to their marriage, to their immediate alienation, to her attempt to kill him, to his total 'metanoia' (ie, his change of heart expressed at the end, by Russian orthodox prostration). His 'metanoia' however is too late - his wife is no longer able to bear 'love' and she commits suicide.
A Gentle Spirit was commissioned by the Bath Festival for the Nash Ensemble with funds made available by the Arts Council of Great Britain. The fist performance took place on 6th June 1977 at the Theatre Royal, Bath. The Nash Ensemble was conducted by Mark Elder with Elise Ross (wife) and Kenneth Woollam (husband).
John Tavener (1977)