By John Rockwell
Friday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Opera House marked the American premiere of ''The Forest,'' a nearly four-hour work of musical theater credited, correctly and incorrectly, to Robert Wilson and David Byrne. It was a gala occasion, a benefit with the sort of elegant audience that has made the Next Wave Festival hip.
Yet it was hardly uncontroversially festive. Any Wilson work - for despite the correctness of the credits, that's what this is - drives people away in droves. This one, more complex and yet ultimately more rewarding than most, seems even more opaque than most, too. Unless you do your homework.
The project was conceived by Mr. Wilson, the visionary theater artist, and David Byrne, the composer and lead singer and guitarist of the rock band Talking Heads. Originally, there was to be a stage version and a film version. For now, however, the film is on hold and the stage version has become a Wilson piece, pure but not so simple.
Not so simple, because Mr. Wilson always enlists collaborators. Here, Mr. Byrne remains the most important, providing nearly continuous taped music. But Heiner Muller, the noted East German playwright, and Darryl Pinckney, a Berlin-based American writer, did the text; Suzushi Hanayagi contributed the choreography; Tom Kamm helped Mr. Wilson with the sets; Frida Parmeggiani did the superb costumes; Heinrich Brunke collaborated with Mr. Wilson on the lighting (a little roughly executed on Friday) and Hans-Peter Kuhn did an aural collage.
The reason for any confusion is that this is a highly personalized updating of parts of ''The Epic of Gilgamesh,'' the fragmentary Babylonian epic that not everyone knows by heart. ''The Forest'' was commissioned by the city of West Berlin and performed there and in Munich in October and November before arriving in Brooklyn for its nine-day run. Here it is being performed by the wonderful Berlin Freie Volksbuhne company, with most of the key passages of the text rendered in German-accented English.
Mr. Wilson and Mr. Byrne decided to update the epic to mid-19th-century Germany, with Gilgamesh transformed from ancient king to industrial baron. The tale thus becomes an allegory of Western civilization's troubled relationship with nature.
As usual, Mr. Wilson enriches the central story with all manner of evocative personal symbolism. But that central story is traced coherently through the piece's seven acts. The half-man, half-animal Enkidu (mimed by the heroically beautiful Howie Seago) is seduced from primordial grace by a prostitute (the lovely Geno Lechner) sent by Gilgamesh (here a Joel Grey in ''Cabaret'' sort, nicely done by Martin Wuttke). The tale begins in the mythic past, then traces Gilgamesh's yearnings for fulfillment, Enkidu's first intimations of eroticism, the seduction, Gilgamesh and Enkidu's symbiotic bonding, the heroic battle in which Enkidu dies and a short postlude in heaven.
Yet none of this is really very clear unless one studies the program and especially the program booklet sold in the lobby. Reading the actual ''Epic of Gilgamesh'' doesn't hurt, either.
And the piece doesn't quite work on purely spectacular or musical terms. This is actually a pretty ambitious Wilson production, more opulent and beautiful than most seen here. But it doesn't equal the circus lavishness of, say, ''Death, Destruction and Detroit II'' a couple of years ago at the West Berlin Schaubuhne.
And while Mr. Byrne's music - mostly a naive-brilliant reduction and abstraction of 19th-century orchestral effects, composed on a synthesizer and then orchestrated by Mr. Byrne and Jimmie Haskell - is often telling, and will fascinate followers of his rock, it can't salvage the show if that show seems meaningless.
For me, loving Mr. Wilson's work and having done my homework, ''The Forest'' is one of his more challenging efforts. Nothing like it will be seen in New York this season, it's safe to say. And for the sympathetic, it will strike home with the force of a mystical revelation.