Poland has recently produced a plethora of enfants terribles opera directors such as Michał Znaniecki, Krzysztof Warlikowski and Mariusz Treliński, all of whom sprang from a theatre or film background. Treliński, in particular, sees opera in especially cinematic terms and once remarked: “Artificiality is the essence of opera. There is no representation of the world." Perhaps the word verismo doesn’t translate into Polish. It is unclear exactly what Treliński was trying to convey in his trite and tasteless production of La traviata for the Polish National Opera, other than a lot of nudity and sleaze-sur-Seine. It certainly had nothing to do with Dumas, Piave or Verdi. It's as if he confused La Dame aux camélias with Lulu.

<i>La traviata</i> © Krzysztof Bieliński
La traviata
© Krzysztof Bieliński

Utilising the impressive stage machinery of Warsaw’s enormous Teatr Wielki, Treliński transported elegant 19th-century Paris into a tawdry time-warp mish-mash of the Crazy Horse, Studio 54 and Hollywood Hooters bar. Ziegfeld Follies bimbas and cutesy June Taylor dancers (complete with outré white ostrich feather fans in Act 2) added to the choreographic confusion.

The constantly moving 46-metre-wide triptych stage set resembled large railway carriages which needed lots of WD-40 to mute the Pacific 231 tintinnabulation. On stage-right, fire-escapes dominated; a retro night club/discotheque was in the middle, then a narrow alley and chambre privée stage-left. Violetta’s “Casa di campagna” was a wooden-decked swimming pool straight out of Mar-a-Lago. It seems both Violetta and Flora are homeless as most of the drama takes place in the disco/night-club setting. There were no champagne flutes for the Brindisi, just a 1970s mike as if Alfredo and Violetta were unlikely entrants in “Pigalle’s Got Talent”. Violetta’s bedroom is a variant on the VIP room, but this time the only furniture is a wooden chair. Six pairs of party shoes around the perimeter of the mirrored circular boudoir suggested Imelda Marcos in really bad times.

<i>La traviata</i> © Krzysztof Bieliński
La traviata
© Krzysztof Bieliński

Initially dressed in nothing more than black fishnet stockings and tight cleavage-popping bodice, this Violetta was in every sense exposed to Tout-Paris. Albanian soprano Alekta Cela certainly looked fabulous. The “coro di Zingarelle” were topless strippers and in Act 2 Alfredo was wearing boxers under a fluffy white bathrobe while chipping golf balls into the swimming pool. Baron Douphol was for some inexplicable reason a Karl Largerfeld lookalike.

This visually titillating but dramatically sterile production could have been redeemed by Verdi’s wonderful music, but sadly this was not the case. Ukrainian conductor Andriy Yurkevych managed to denude Verdi’s sensitive score of any semblance of lyricism or rhythmic pulse. There were innumerable synchronisation problems between stage and pit, not only in the usual tricky Allegro vivo measures such as “Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora” and the Matadors' Chorus but even the duet between Germont père and Violetta almost came off the musical rails.

As the insufferable patriarch from Provence, Carlos Almaguer harrumphed with impressive volume but minimal musicality. Diction was non-existent and Almaguer completely ignored the constantly changing dynamic markings, most notably belting out a crowd pleasing top D-flat at the end of “Di Provenza il mar” instead of the diminuendo indicated.

<i>La traviata</i> © Krzysztof Bieliński
La traviata
© Krzysztof Bieliński

In a dramaturgy which reduced Violetta to little more than a pole-dancer, Alketa Cela displayed a generous, fully-rounded timbre in mid-register with accurate sixteenth note scales and roulades in “Sempre libera”. Unfortunately there was a dangerous tendency to sing slightly under pitch in the upper register. Surprisingly her top D flats were pristine. Perhaps due to Yurkevych’s erratic conducting, Cela’s tempi were generally imprecise but her diction was consistently poor, most noticeably in her reading of “Teneste la promessa”. Omission of the optional top E flat at the end of “Sempre libera” was indicative of a vocally undistinguished performance which bordered on the banal. More significantly, this Violetta was never emotionally moving or deserving of sympathy.

The most successful performance came from young American tenor Leonardo Capalbo. His Alfredo was the only multi-faceted characterisation as he matured from a bashful, preppy stage-door-Johnny to a violently jealous lover. Capalbo has a solid vocal technique with a warm, full-bodied lustrous timbre which carried effortlessly into the large, acoustically problematic auditorium. Despite the golf balls, “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” combined impressive vocal assurance with an elegant melodic line and finely nuanced phrasing. The following cabaletta had fire and finesse while scrupulous attention to the dynamic markings and exemplary diction were impressive throughout. Only Capalbo’s golf swing needs attention.

Continuing the golfing parlance, on this occasion at least, Mariusz Treliński’s Traviata was regrettably nowhere near par for the course.