Lost in a bitter Viennese whirl

Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss, With Josephine Barstow, Ulrik Cold, Susan Bickley, Linda Kitchen, produced by Stephen Lawless, Hongkong Philharmonic conducted by Roderick Brydon, HK Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, January 30.

WHAT,'' asked Governor Chris Patten, opening the Hongkong Arts Festival, ''would Richard Strauss have made of Hongkong?'' More significantly, what would Strauss have made of Stephen Lawless' convulsive bewilderment of Rosenkavalier? What happened to Grand Comedy of infatuation, love and boorishness in 18th-century Vienna? Stephen Lawless has taken Von Hofmannsthal's delightful tale and transformed it into an anachronistic cataclysm of time, place and costume.

Here was a first-act bedroom that was half-Hapsburg, half East Side New York tenement building, with dirty windows, and unpainted doors. Here was a second-act 18th-century palace which was a constricted room, bare save for pink fluorescent tubes winding around the room.

What was one to make of costumes which ranged from Renaissance to modern prison-warder, to the suits of a gaggle of press photographers circa 1920.

Until the final scene, Lawless' Rosenkavalier, rather than being magical and outrageous, was simply neither.

For the first two acts, even the direction seemed erratic. The opening bedroom scene, with its fusion of androgynous lovers (girl playing boy dressed as girl) began with a sensuous charm, then evaporated into slapstick. The second act's planned farce was unfunny (shaking one's derriere to Strauss's most radiant waltz was tiresome), and the lovers' steps were out of a bad commercial.

But something happened. In the final act, Lawless pushed back the walls of the brothel and we were back again in that first bedroom, now devoid of windows. In the final trio, one saw the Lawless was trying to create a dream. Not a dream of charming Vienna, but a dream of nightmares and irrational characters not so much the dream of Alice in Wonderland, as the dream of Finnegans Wake.

And even for those who were not convinced, this most abstract finale became a sort of vindication.

The music is of course its own vindication. While one may grimace at the dramatic bastardisation of the waltzes, the music shines. The Hongkong Philharmonic sounded rather thin on opening night but the voices of the three women were dazzling.

One could ask for no more regal presence than Josephine Barstow as the Princess. Nor a more mighty mezzo boy-girl than Susan Bickley's Octavian. Yes, Linda Kitchen looked a bit absurd as Sophie, but she could transcend the absurdities of the second act, with her own floating soprano.

As for Ulrick Cold's Baron, his voice had a gentleness which belied his astounding height and girth. But as he chased his girls about the stage, one had to shrink back at the obscenity of the sight.

One could find little fault in the rest of the cast, from the countless harlequins to Gu Ping (who sung the Italian aria) to young Jignesh Tailor, as the black valet.

Rosenkavalier still has the most resplendent operatic music of the century - almost any century. What Lawless seemed to do, though, was take the four-hour equivalent of a Viennese chocolate cake and pour on pepper. You know that the sweet is lying somewhere in the concoction, but far too much is bitter or tasteless.