Robert Wilson leaves his stamp on a mystical Debussy work. PARIS OPERA BALLET IN AMERICA

Although he's usually labeled a theater director, Robert Wilson's brand of stagecraft - stressing images, not stories or characters - has much in common with other arts as diverse as painting, architecture, and dance. So it's no particular stretch for him to move from the theatrical stage to the balletic stage, working with the Paris Op'era Ballet to create an epical production of Debussy's mystical ``Le Martyre de Saint S'ebastien.'' First seen in France earlier this year, the production - subtitled ``A Mystery in Five Mansions'' - recently had its American premi`ere at the Metropolitan Opera House here. In addition to the Paris Op'era Ballet's own dancers, the cast included Sheryl Sutton and Phillippe Chemin, two seasoned veterans of Wilson's unusual performance techniques. Wilson was credited not only with directing the show but also with writing the prologue and creating the sets, costumes, and lighting design in tandem with various collaborators.

The result was very much a Wilson work, as opposed to a Debussy work (not much Debussy is heard, actually) or even a Paris Op'era Ballet work. Every aspect had Wilson's characteristic stamp: slow-motion gestures, expressionistic sound, and a persistent sense that the work's narrative structure was dictated by its visual ideas and not the other way around.

Series of dramatic incidents

As with some other Wilson extravaganzas in recent years, ``Saint S'ebastien'' sounds like a traditional drama (if a rather exotic one) when you read a synopsis. It takes its cue from Gabriele D'Annunzio's text for the original ``Saint S'ebastien'' production in 1911. The setting is Rome in the 3rd century; the characters are persecuted Christians and decadent Romans; the plot unfolds in a series of increasingly dramatic incidents.

From the moment the curtain rises, however, it's clear this ``Saint S'ebastien'' is not one of Wilson's rare excursions into linear dramaturgy. The on-stage events don't tell a story, they hint at a story in oblique and wholly intuitive ways - just as an ``abstract'' painting may borrow some of its visual elements from a figurative painting that's already familiar to its intended audience. S'ebastien and the other characters are treated more as human props than as dramatically rich personalities. They're the focal point of the production, but they carry no more psychological weight than do the sets, costumes, and light patterns that frame and define them throughout the production's three-hour running time.

Liberating to the imagination

This is Wilson's usual strategy, and in ``Saint S'ebastien'' it works quite well. The action of the production is slow, and despite the richness of the sets and costumes, it's also quite spare - especially when mounted on the Met's vast stage, which is so generously proportioned that even a full-scale Wilson epic like ``Einstein on the Beach'' is hard pressed to fill it up. The effect is allusive and nonaggressive in a way that's radically unfamiliar in today's world of slam-bang cultural artifacts. It's also radically restful and, in its refusal to condense its dreamlike incidents into a compressed theatrical time scale, liberating to the senses and the imagination.

The matinee performance I attended was technically imprecise, suggesting that the Paris company isn't yet fully in tune with Wilson's unorthodox tactics. It also seemed perverse for the narration to be spoken in French, when an English translation could easily have been substituted for the work's American engagement.

These problems aside, ``Saint S'ebastien'' emerged as a major Wilson achievement, more free-flowing in its ideas and more prodigal in its effects than such recent efforts as ``Hamletmachine'' and ``The Knee Plays.'' It also boasts a finale - a vision of paradise as a pulsating white field populated with silver animals and a blood-red angel - that ranks with the most astonishing coups of his visionary career.

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