AN opera is best measured when it is produced. So it is welcome news that one act, at least, of Robert Wilson's quirkily titled 12-hour opera, “the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down,” arrived on Sunday evening for 10 performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The fervent hosannas that were so faithfully relayed back to us for six years whenever a segment of the work was tried out anywhere in the world no longer need be taken on faith.
The title turns out to have significance of an odd sort, because the entire work makes as little sense as its name. One might try to discern esthetic or philosophical meanings in the author's use or avoidance of capital letters, but that would be fruitless. Meanings of a rational sort are beside the point in “the CIVIL warS.” What Mr. Wilson has produced, with the help of a metapoetical, obscurantist libretto and a numbingly primitive Philip Glass score, is opera for the eye, no less and certainly no more. His overwhelming concern for movement and retinal sensation continually pushes the work closer to modern dance than to musical theater - one was continually being reminded of the the far wittier staging coups dreamed up by Paul Taylor as long as 20 years ago, as well as early works of Merce Cunningham and Alwin Nikolais.
The music is largely incidental and trivial, despite the dedicated efforts of such singers and actors as Claudia Cummings, Ruby Hinds, Paul Spencer Adkins and Harlan Foss. Mr. Glass's work persists in reminding one of orchestrated Czerny or Hanon exercises. For the first scene, accompanying an oddly conventional ballet, the music sounds like simplified Carl Orff, a “Carmina Burana” in diapers.
Because only the so-called Rome Section, consisting of a Prologue and Act V, is being mounted in Brooklyn, we will have to wait to measure the tree's full 12-hour length. However, Mr. Wilson's esthetic game plan is familiar: in the great Dada tradition, he selects and manipulates stage images in an apparently random manner, trusting that his audience will find something hypnotic, outrageous or mystical in them - perhaps even a redemptive tongue-in-cheek humor. We therefore find such disparate characters thrown together as Garibaldi, Robert E. Lee, Abe Lincoln and Hercules. Garibaldi observes all from a side box and sings a long, strenuous aria in what may be Italian. Amplification of singers and chorus contributes to the overall narcotic effect.
The evening's most telling bit of theatrical craft comes early, with the death of Lincoln, which occurs in the prologue: Abe, a stilted figure about 20 feet tall, levitates horizontally and moves slowly offstage like a top-hatted dirigible. Robert E. Lee appears later, floating outside a spaceship's porthole, talking interminably in a Cagean mosaic of unconnected phrases. Except for the prologue, in fact, all action takes place in outer space, though that does not prevent the occasional appearance of a stuffed goose or swan, winging slowly past on wires. The spaceships seem to be connected by a grid of bolted cables, an idea that NASA may have discarded. Throughout, the opera's pace is that of ''Parsifal,'' but its substance that of a vastly prolonged music video.