A huge spaceship fills the back of the stage, occupied by Robert E. Lee, turning like the hand of a giant clock as he gazes through a porthole. In front of him stand Mary Lincoln and eight black-robed singers. The space traveler chants a text about a majestic but sorrowful horseman who is probably Lee himself. The octet urges Mrs. Lincoln to share her memory of what ``must have been a terrible war.'' That's one episode in Robert Wilson's only large-scale original theater piece to reach American shores in the past couple of years. It's an opera known as the ``Rome section'' of ``the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down,'' an epic created part-by-part in several countries and not yet produced in its entirety. The two-hour segment runs through Dec. 30 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as the last regularly scheduled event in this year's much-discussed ``Next Wave'' festival.
As extravagant as it sounds - with its mixture of music, speech, history, myth, and science fiction - the scene I've described is actually one of the less-inspired pieces of stagecraft in the show. That so imaginative and original a moment can appear a little drab, in contrast to the marvels that surround it, is itself a testament to the prodigious gift for make-believe that has made Wilson a director and designer of far-reaching influence.
Not that everyone applauds his work. The arrival of the ``Rome section'' in the United States, after performances at the Rome Opera and elsewhere, has renewed gripes about the slow pace and lack of literal meaning that are two of his most controversial trademarks.
The music, moreover, is by Philip Glass - a leading ``minimalist'' composer who has whipped up his own critical firestorms with a deliberately repetitive style that perfectly matches the languorous rhythm of Wilson's so-called ``theater of images.''
I have admired both Wilson and Glass ever since the American premi`ere of their astonishing ``Einstein on the Beach'' 10 years ago, and I see much value in theater and music that linger on moments of crystallized beauty instead of rushing continually from one dramatic crest to another.
To my eyes and ears, the ``Rome section'' falters in two scenes. The trouble has nothing to do with pacing or repetition - the dance is fast and furious, as it happens - but with the staging itself, which seems obvious and sparsely imagined when measured by the lofty standards of Wilson's best work.
Happily, the evening's two other scenes do rank with Wilson's finest. The first is an exquisitely wrought vision of a ``Snow Owl'' perched in a tree, an ``Earth Mother'' below, and a gigantic Abraham Lincoln who rises silently into the air and floats magically out of view. The other includes Mary Lincoln at the window of another spaceship and a procession of trees gliding silently across the stage.
The excellent singers include Ruby Hinds as the Earth Mother, Harlan Foss as Lincoln, Claudia Cummings as the Snow Owl, and Hercules's mother Alcmene, and Paul Spencer Adkins as Garibaldi, who sings from a box seat overlooking the audience. Ulysses Dove did the choreography.
Bruce Ferden conducts the Brooklyn Philharmonic in Glass's score, which contains his freshest musical ideas since ``Satyagraha'' and his best writing for a full orchestra ever.
Wilson has been busy in the US lately, directing small-scale shows and works by other playwrights. As stimulating as those productions have been, they seem like small change next to the lavish brilliance of the ``Rome section.''