Violetta spread-eagled on a slowly revolving routette wheel? Four caryatids holding up mirrored ceilings in all four scenes? An entire "Traviata" cast in chalk-white or off-gray makeup except for Alfredo? The women in the chorus looking like prostitudes in "The Rake's Progress"; the men looking as if they had dropped in from "The Boys in the Band?"

These are only some of the willful, gross distortions forced upon the Washington Opera's production of Verdi's touching masterpiece by designer-director Jean-Pierre Onnnelle. Easily the worst "Traviata" in my entire experience (exceeding in tastelessness and violent distortion that of Visconti in Spoleto some years ago), it ruins much of the fine musical account.

It is essential to divide any review of this caricature into two parts, one discussing the revolting staging, the other the often excellent musical side. Ponnelle, whose perverseness wrecked "The Flying Dutchman" last season at the Metropolitan Opera, does have an inspired idea at the beginning of the Prelude. He shows Violetta moving slowly into the room of her Paris house where her party will soon be in full swing. As she lights twin candelabra on the supper table, she sees what looks like the deathhead of some sweet old nun, her face surrounded by the black and white wimple of her order. (Ponnelle says it is the corpse of Violetta, but don't you believe it!) As the prelude ends, Violetta covers up the waxy image with the tablecloth and proceeds to seat her guests around the table with its grisly little dish.

As the opening scene begins, the chorus, while singing, jiggles rapidly up and down in time to the music, looking exactly as if every one of them had forgotten to go to the bathroom before the curtain went up. It is perhaps the most absurd effect of the entire opera, one Ponnelle repeats with ever-worsening result in what plays as Act III, though Verdi wrote it as Scene Two, Act Two.

More minor damage is done during this $600,000 production (shared with the Houston Opera, where it originated) of "Traviata" than in any within memory: Two champagne glasses are smashed in Act One, a chair is overthrown in Act Two, a table in Act Three, and a vase in Act Four. Quixotic lighting is marked by frequent, inexplicable sudden white flashes.

The roulette wheel appears in Flora's party. When Alfredo insults Violetta, throwing money in her face, it becomes the vehicle of her total disgrace in a scene that so harribly violates all of Verdi's thought and care for one of his favorite heroines that you have to think Ponelle must hate "La Traviata" with a burning ferocity. Why else does Violetta suddenly become so ugly in the short time between leaving her country house and arriving at Flora's?

Perversions of equal violence continue right through the final scene. One of Verdi's master strokes, Violeta's reading of Germont's letter, which can be an infinitely touching moment with her dying voice over the solo violin, is wrecked by the directors's conceit of having the voice of Germont read it over a loudspeaker! And still more: Violetta, feeble to the point of death, not only hears offstage revelers, they burst into her room and, dragging her from her bed, whirl her around! Friends, it is not to be believed.

What about the music? Much of it is lovely, headed by Catherine Malfitano in a role for which she had the classic look and a lyric voice capable of great appeal.

Once past those treacherous shoals that end "Sempre libera," she is often impressive, making words count and spinning lovely quiet tones and ringing fullvoiced phrases. (But why no "g" at the beginning of "gioir," where it literally creates the mood intended?) With baritone Brent Ellis as Germont, Malfitano made the long garden scene the finest purely vocal episode of the evening. Ellis sings handsomely and won a solid ovation. He ought to unbend toward Violetta at the end of the scene as Verdi indicates, rather than holding to his stony paternal rule.

Beniamino Prior's Alfredo was poorly sung with wavering pitch and unsteady rhythm. The chorus was excellent in song, fine in discipline, especially when you remember the awful things they had to do.

Theo Alcantara conducted a strictly no-nonsense performance, refusing to stop for applause even after some of the most famous moments. In a way he matched the rigid manner of the staging. A tough more leeway for Violetta in "A fors e lui" would be welcome; a slightly more moderate pacing of the "Addio del passato" is necessary.

But when it was all over, the performance of Verdi's music was hard to recall because of the new meanings given to the vulgar and the cheap by the staging. How tragic!