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