• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Concorde Diary

February 28, 1978. Checking in for the Concorde, we are warned to remove film from our pockets before passing through Security, which raises a question about the effect of detecting devices on people, as well as on unexposed film. The list of articles forbidden aboard includes aqualungs and, unless sealed in polyethylene bags, thermometers.

In compensation for the cramped ride and abrupt meal service on the Concorde, small luxuries are offered before and after the flight. Each passenger is individually escorted to a special waiting lounge, where businessmen are squinting at stock-market averages in The Wall Street Journal while stewards bring trays of paté and bottle after bottle of Dom Perignon, like caterers at a Palm Beach wedding. The décor is bright and cheerful, the chairs are noninstitutional, and the wall is a large window with a view of the aircraft’s bowsprit-like nose cone. Coats and carry-ons are collected here and taken on board ahead.

The airplane is even smaller than reported, and no wider, it seems, than the one-propeller craft of thirty years ago. Entering the doorway, we are obliged to duck, and, in the narrow aisle, to turn sideways to pass, which accounts for the advance cloakroom service: it would be difficult to remove overcoats without jabbing neighbors. In fact the pocket-mirror-sized window might have been designed for a maximum security prison, the seat to prepare the occupant for a spell in a straitjacket. Basketball players would be well advised to travel subsonically.

To judge by their twang, many of the travelers are Texans, tall men who crouch when they stand and who talk about oilionaire sheiks and developments in Oman and Kuwait. By contrast, the accents and vocabulary of the crew seem markedly British, as when the cabin attendant says, demonstrating a life jacket, “Pull the knob smartly downward.” She points to the “entertainment console” in the armrest, but the seat is too constricting for normal-sized people to be able to see the buttons and dials, and thus to hear the stolidly English earphone concert of Elgar, Walton, and Vaughan Williams. The engine noise, like that of a powerful vacuum cleaner, grows louder with revving, and whistles at take-off like a Fourth of July rocket. The climb seems more rapid than in other planes, and, after a sharp initial dip of the tail, steeper. Ears crackle and nostrils fill momentarily with the smell of combusting fuel. The captain announces: “In the interest of noise abatement, we will reduce our speed, then in about twenty minutes this delightful aircraft will come into its element.” The braking, over Coney Island, feels like the suspension before the plunge in a roller coaster.

At the head of the cabin a Mach-meter, like a digital clock, begins to register at MO:34. The numbers tick off quickly until reaching the speed of Mach 1, and again, beyond the sound barrier, Mach 2 (1,350 mph), where, fluctuating no more than a point or so, they remain throughout the trip. Within minutes, Long Island, the Sound, and snow-covered Connecticut are beneath us, as if on a vast map. At 72,000 feet we can see the curve of the earth, and the planet’s globe shape becomes a reality.

Food is served in small installments, on Lilliputian plates, and with cutlery suitable to furnish an F.A.O. Schwarz doll house—except for a souvenir swizzle stick with Concorde fantail. During the meal, at about 1 PM New York time, twilight falls, eerily, reminding us of an eclipse. V.A.S. complains that “to be hurried is not deluxe,” and she compares today’s miracle of technology unfavorably with train travel in Russia eighty years ago, when

Everyone brought flowers to the station, and we had caviar packed in ice, hampers with game, wines, buckets of champagne, and our own cow, “La Générale,” in the caboose. Tea was sold from large samovars in villages where the train stopped.

Reading time is too brief to satisfy my compulsion to finish books, even bad ones, in this case The Human Factor. Not for a moment does the reader picture the Bantu wife of the double-agent hero, or believe in his acquiescence in the murder of his innocent partner. But if the characters in the novel are disappointing, the writing is still more so (“…we’ve gone further than anyone realizes on our own”), and padded with far-fetched images:

The hackneyed phrase came warm and unintended to Castle’s tongue: it inspired him, as though, in penetrating a familiar cave, on some holiday at sea, he had observed on a familiar rock the primeval painting of a human face which he had always mistaken before for a chance pattern of fungi.

An announcement from the cockpit—“We will be landing fifteen minutes ahead of shedule”—terminates this, and as papers are stuffed into briefcases, and the Machmeter registers the deceleration, a man in the row behind us remarks to his companion that “in about three minutes we will cease to be targets for satellites and enter the range for earth stations.” The wheel-lowering is bumpier, the touchdown more jolting, the tug of the seat belt tighter than in ordinary jets, and at Heathrow we wait two hours for baggage, half the time saved on the flight.

March 5. The magazine section of today’s Telegraph contains a three-page article about the forthcoming show of paintings by V.A.S., “The Moon Goddess Who Lived History.” The director of her London gallery is quoted:

On the very same day Madame Stravinsky first called to discuss her exhibition, it so happens that Prokofiev also came by with his port-folio.

Prokofiev having died a quarter of a century ago, however, the reader must conclude either that the arrangements for Madame Stravinsky’s exhibition were fixed an unusually long time in advance, or that the Prokofiev in question was not the composer. (It was his son, Oleg, who is not mentioned.) The article also fumbles her anecdote about an encounter with swashbucklers on the Black Sea, saying that the ship on which she fled from Baku to Marseille in 1920 “was overrun by Turkish brigands [who] spoke Russian like Stalin.” But obviously these cut-throats, like their famous successor, were Georgians, not Turks.

A more serious misquotation, from another interview, has landed on the front page of the Guardian and provoked an international retentissement, as we learn from calls to New York and the Continent. What V.A.S. actually said was that she had burned Stravinsky’s love letters at his request before she came to America in 1940. What she is reported to have said is that she intends to burn these letters on returning to America. Messages arrive from everywhere, many of them drawing an analogy between V.A.S. and Clara Schumann, who actually did destroy some of her husband’s last compositions as well as correspondence.

March 9. Covent Garden. It is clear that tonight’s I domeneo has been thoroughly rehearsed and that the production is meant to display the company at its best. But the first two acts, played together, are too long, and this division of the drama is disastrously lopsided. Nor is the casting ideal. Stuart Burrows’s tenor is too sweet for the heroic title role, and though Ms. Cononovici, as Electra, has the right quality of voice, she cannot focus it. More serious faults than these are found in the staging, which centers on an enormous pair of self-animating staircases. The scenery and action are Wagnerian, rather than classical, and, within this format, the one unqualified success is the monster, a terrifying creature that gobbles’up some of the corps de ballet and belches smoke that both fills the theater and, at intermission, empties it more rapidly than usual.

Götz Friedrich, the director, is no less successful at inventing distractions than his master, Walter Felsenstein. Thus the removal of corpses becomes a major preoccupation. After Electra stabs herself—with a weapon that she holds like a sword swallower, before choosing a scabbard slightly lower down—the audience is obliged to watch as her body is slowly enshrouded, lifted, and borne off. Even during the great third-act quartet, bodies, distributed all over the stage, are carried out one by one, an ambulance service that diverts the attention, leaving little for the music. In another bit of stage business, Ilia sings Se il padre perdei seated on a stool, while I domeneo listens on another one, as if the director wished to point out that the style of the opera had fallen between. The staging never lacks movement, to be sure, but billowing drapery and the raising and lowering of panels are no substitute for drama.

The ever more vocal lobby for I domeneo has convinced many buffs that the opera deserves to be ranked with Mozart’s greatest, and that the right performance would make this apparent. If weaknesses in the work are mentioned at all, they are blamed entirely on the libretto, certainly no literary or dramatic masterpiece. Yet in spite of the marvels of the score, Mozart must share responsibility for the opera’s shortcomings, in the arias which are too long for their dramatic content and in those places where momentum builds only to stop dead. The latter fault may be characteristic of opera seria, but the same never happens in Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così, with which I domeneo is now being compared. And it is of these operas that I domeneo reminds us, rather than of its origins in the archaic style, which, in any event, the work transcends. To go further, I domeneo anticipates Romantic opera, even that of Verdi, in the choruses, the grandeur and complexity of the large ensemble scenes, the emotional extravagance, and the failure of credibility.

Though each piece astonishes more than the one before, none is so immediately indelible as any aria from the later operas, or even from Mozart’s other music of the I domeneo period, such as the Romanza in the Serenade, K. 361. A publicity release in today’s Financial Times states that I domeneo contains Mozart’s “most sublime early music.” But, with Mozart, is twenty-five “early”? By that age he had had extensive experience in the theater, and, while still younger, had attained maturity in almost every kind of instrumental and vocal music.

Circumstances were important in the creation of I domeneo. The role of Idamante, for instance, predominant at the beginning of the opera, becomes less so later because Mozart discovered that the castrato for whom he was writing the music could not render it satisfactorily. Also, the instrumental parts are lapidary even by Mozart’s standards, for the apparent reason that the Munich orchestra was so superior to any that had been placed at his disposal before.

March 12. New York. Reading T.S. Eliot’s early and, with few exceptions, never republished, criticism of prose fiction, I am amazed by his range, genius in making distinctions, and soundness of judgment—this last in contrast to many of his writings about versifying contemporaries (“there are poems by Mr. Herbert Read and Mr. Aldington which endure”;1 “Mr. Frost[‘s]…verse…is uninteresting, and what is uninteresting is unreadable, and what is unreadable is not read”2 ).

  1. 1

    The Dial, March 1921.

  2. 2

    The Dial, May 1922.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print