Mary Gaitskill

Dido And Aeneas

Janet Baker, “When I Am Laid In Earth” (Dido and Aeneas, Henry Purcell)

This is from a story of love, abandonment and death. The melodramatic aspect of the staging and costumes strangely add to the supernatural quality of the exquisite sound: the nearly still, yet emotionally empathic bodies of the male characters are amplified by their rough, cake-frosting costumes, the absurd pointy queen’s crown gives a piercing contrast to her soft-draped, soft-shaped body, the refined movement of her sometimes-wide mouth is devastating in her fleshy face, and then there is that one moment where her intensely in-folded lips release her voice in a pure glowing intersplice of fragility and power expressed as sound.

The body language and the voice are in a constant dramatic flux of collapse, lift, falling, rising, contraction, expansion, hopeless weakness and spiritual power:  watch how she nearly falls against her beloved friend and then, in her defeat, with her face so knit and dark it’s nearly ugly, she spreads her arms and invokes the power of the earth, then contracts again as she holds her fists gently to her chest, then opens her arms in resignation without fear. In the one ungainly moment, she falls over like a tree.  The scene ends in mortal weakness and confusion as bobble-headed humans crown round.

Dame Janet Baker was not a physically beautiful woman, but her grace and the tender movement of her hands, especially on her servant’s face, give her what the merely beautiful might envy in vain.

- Mary Gaitskill

  • Damian Rogers

    Her hands, her hands! I love her hands.

  • philadelphia

    She is beauty. Her voice is so soft and controlled, but you feel that it comes from somewhere deep–a horrifying but truthful place. She is stoic but then offers us tiny glimpses of her weakening body, making her struggle all the more heart-breaking.

  • Amy Bebeme

    You describe something that before this post was indescribable – and the beauty of Dame Janet’s performance lives in your words, the way all the promise and tragedy and Russia’s silverage and revolution live in Rachmaninoff’s music. It’s one of the most amazing things about art – it endures and keeps handing us all this beauty that’s been preserved and created in spite of the violence and brutality of the past, and now it will help us survive the horrors we are sure to face. Thank you for this post which made me cry in gratitude.

  • Amy Bebeme

    This sentence is so staggeringly beautiful: When I read it feel just as I do when I get shivers from an aria of a great singer like Dame Janet or Jessye Norman – which is really something – to read a silent sentence that does that. The conquered unobtainable: “…then there is that one moment where her intensely in-folded lips release her voice in a pure glowing intersplice of fragility and power expressed as sound.”

    • Mary Gaitskill

      Thank you for your beautiful and intense receptivity.

  • Amy Bebeme

    Have you seen the minimalist Traviata with Netrebko? It is so beautiful, the best Traviata I’ve seen. Here’s the end of the first act, whre Violetta begins as a nowhere girl:

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Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novels: "Veronica," "Two Girls, Fat and Thin," and "The Mare." She has also written three books of stories: "Bad Behavior," "Because They Wanted To," and "Don't Cry," and a book of essays, entitled "Somebody with a Little Hammer." More Mary Gaitskill here.