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Mozartian flights of fancy

Down I-101 and into Hollywood, bright and sleazy as ever. Angel Records, purveyor of divine EMI Mozart releases reigns at Holly-Vine. Westwards and into Canter's which smells of New York. O Pastrami! O Lockshen! We order a plate of latkes; "potato pancakes?" returns the stern waitress. Better not to risk demanding knedalach soup, and settle for Los Anglicized "Matzo Ball." Sucked once more onto the freeway we race through an eternity of nothing.

At the airport it's chaos as usual at the People Express terminal. Lines of the unwashed fight with the trademarked Sullen Snarl that makes Pee X so welcoming. The sullen snarler forbids me to carry on an overladen suitcase; refuses the "cabin baggage" tag needed to take anything on board. But my chauffeur/porter -- and former Tech editor in chief -- furtively slips his hand behind the counter, grabs a bundle of the scarce tags and we head off towards the gate.

Leaving Los Angeles at night is sinister. By day it's generally hidden in an envelope of smog, but on a clear evening the lights of the town sprawl on forever. The town has no visible form, no order. There is no focus of life, just lines of wormlike freeways inching forward as the aircraft heads skywards, endless tentacles of Interstate disappearing into oblivion holding the nowhere-headed population compulsively in their grasp.

Guglielmo has just won the heart of Ferrando's girl-friend, Dorabella. He has been trying to seduce her in connection with a wager with Don Alfonso who claims -- contrary to the belief of the two doting lovers -- that all women are fickle. Guglielmo now complains about the way women maltreat men in Donne mie, la fate a tanti, sung with close personal attachment by Thomas Allen to vanquish the impersonality of the disappearing City of Angels.

There is anger in his voice. Each word is mouthed with precision, with bite. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Richard Armstrong responds with clean bold lines, reinforcing Guglielmo's distraught bemusement.

The City has disappeared, and as we climb higher Cherubino is brought down to earth by Figaro's Non pi`u andrai. The boy is destined for war now; there's to be no more fooling around with the ladies, says Figaro. Allen doesn't miss an innuendo, a cruel emphasis here, a stern stricture there. The words are crisp, and Cherubino is apparently left with little choice but to head off "a la gloria militar." The orchestra concludes with a splendid flourish to add point to Allen's already well-sharpened message.

The determination of delivery of Se vuol ballare builds upon the emotional power of the preceding tender recitative Bravo signor padrone! The Count may try to exercise his droit du seigneur, but Figaro thinks differently and warns that he can play games too.

In Figaro we see the conflict of aristocracy and underlings, but we are led to believe that there are no subservients at People Express, no stewardesses or even "flight attendants" but only "customer service managers" continually informing their captive cargo to "at this time" attend to the ticketing "service," down their coffee or, supposedly, "enjoy their flight."

I've always wondered why airlines expect passengers to "enjoy their flight." Perhaps their executives find pleasure in sitting inanimate in steel tubes for several hours. Or maybe they have made the assumption that you have brought along a tape of Mozart.

The sky outside is black; Allen's voice takes on a dark hue, one of arrogance and power. He sings the Count's recitative Hai gi`a vinta la causa which leads into the aria Vedr`o, mentre io sospiro. The fiery recitative lets up briefly for moments of softness, then resumes its rage. The orchestra splendidly builds up the wildest of waves to launch us into the aria, which is sung with rhythmic purpose, with the voice of one obsessed with revenge. Will the Count be beaten by a servant? No! the Count tries to assure himself. The orchestra plays with a playful fluidity while Allen spits bile and hate, jealousy fuelling a power that will prove illusory.

The moon has appeared outside and shimmers broken on the aircraft's wing. Some people pretend to sleep. Figaro, though, is wide awake, distressed by the erroneous belief that his bride-to-be Susanna has faithlessly fallen under the Count's spell. Allen finds no place for a self-pitying Figaro here: The voice is forceful, but is bitter for a rivetting Aprite un p'o quegl' occhi.

We switch from the most complex of feelings to the simplest as the Orchestra plays the opening to birdcatcher Papageno's famous Der Vogelf"anger bin ich ja. Allen snaps out of Figaro's tormented reflection for a brilliantly fresh rendition of this most innocent of arias. Side 1 has ended. It's time to join the slumber pretenders.

But as we approach Newark there's time for an invigorating Ein M"adchen oder Weibchen. Papageno, aided and abetted by magic bells demands a wife. There is light on the horizon. Papageno will get his wife. Night has gone. We're on the ground.

The 8 o'clock flight for Boston would be boarding shortly, the loudspeaker announced. The dirty and bedraggled-looking crowd move to pick themselves up off the floor while four businessmen stiffly hold themselves aloof, deluding themselves into thinking they're about to board the Eastern Shuttle.

Maintenance has found a problem with the plane, the loudspeaker intones. They're going to have to take it for a high-speed test on the runway. The businessmen pretend to be unruffled; the red-eye crowd is too dazed to notice.

The aircraft is not ok, it seems, "but we happen to have a spare," so they said. But it didn't have enough gas on board to take everyone: so only the first 90 would be carried. Ninety of us board and we taxi towards the runway. Then we stop. The door opens and an argument ensues over whether the plane will really make it to Boston.

Fantasies of half an hour hence: "People Express at this time regrets to announce that we will momentarily be out of fuel. Volunteers are requested for advance deplaning. Denied arrival compensation is not available at this time, but beverages will remain on sale for 50|c. No parachutes are available. However, at this time MIT students will be issued with two springs, a screw and a rubber band: You have 30 seconds to improvise. We hope you've enjoyed your flight and will fly with us again when your plans call for air travel."

Everyone is taken off -- in Newark. The third plane to try to leave for Boston is put 10th in line in the queue. It's time for Don Giovanni to enrapture the air traffic controllers.

The Don is in disguise and in Met'a di voi qu'a vadana gives directions to his would-be captors as to where to seek him out. In Allen's hands, the deception is complete, but the highlight of this section of the tape is doubtless his Deh, vieni alla finestra, thick with lust, smooth with seduction. The mandolin accompaniment is magical. The phrasing is impeccably elegant, the total effect intoxicating.

People Express coffee has a high caffeine content and creates the right mood for the highly-wired Finch' han dal vino. An aria from Za"ide and two songs complete the tape, the former as heart-felt as the latter are refreshing and vibrant. The concluding Ich M"ochte Wohl der Kaiser Sein is particularly lively.

We approach Boston. Here is a city with a heart. The cross and green; the hub; the organized focus of disorder. There may be no angels here, but with Mozart on board nothing really matters.

Jonathan Richmond->