PASSING by the gift shop of the Vienna State Opera recently, I was astonished to discover — amid the novelties, the landmarks and the historic miscellanea — what looked like a squarish book, bound in gold covers, bearing the title "Sven-Eric Bechtolf Liest: Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen."
Having examined the contents, I am even more incredulous. Here, on eight audio CDs and a bonus CD of the same material in the MP3 format, is Wagner's entire "Ring" in 6 ½ hours instead of the usual 17, every word of the original German spoken rather than sung, without a single sound effect or music cue for relief. Mr. Bechtolf omits nothing: not the casts of characters, not the stage directions, not even the 30 lines of moralizing that Wagner struck from the climactic Immolation Scene as too preachy. (The set is available from Col Legno, an Austrian label, at col-legno.com.)
As it happens, Wagner himself gave solo readings of the "Ring," including one at the Hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich in February 1853, nine months before he started setting the text to music and almost a quarter century before the full cycle had its premiere at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, which was built for the purpose. Following in the master's footsteps, Mr. Bechtolf himself has given a live reading of the "Ring" at the Baur au Lac.
A director as well as an actor, he makes little attempt to create individual acoustic signatures for Wagner's large cast. There is a hint of blue-collar in the accent of the giants; the wicked dwarfs Alberich and Mime snarl and wheedle; one of the Norns (the old one) quavers like a crone. But mostly the voices are the voice of a storyteller, not acting out the characters but merely reporting what they said.
In the dialogue Mr. Bechtolf will pitch the lines of a woman higher than those of a man, but still within the range he uses for male characters elsewhere. If the Valkyrie battle cry ("Hojotoho!") conjures up the samurai of Kurosawa, the reading is otherwise straight ahead, deliberately devoid of Method nuance. The general tone, even of the bad guys, seems wide-eyed, earnestly artless, the voice often catching on little burrs of self-deprecation.
"You could call it naïve," Mr. Bechtolf, 51, said not long ago by telephone from Zurich, where he was directing Mozart's "Così Fan Tutte." "Each character is like a figure in a fairy tale. But take them all together, and you see the complex structure. Wagner's language is full of alliteration, which to modern German ears sounds funny and strange. A lot of people say that the music is great, but the text is awful. So it's an interesting experiment to see if an audience can just listen to the words without bursting out laughing all the time. And from my live readings it seems to be that people can tolerate long stretches of it surprisingly well."
Not coincidentally, Mr. Bechtolf's "Ring" without music took shape while he was preparing a "Ring" with music, a production first shown in its entirety at the Vienna State Opera in May. "Reading the text out loud was a good way for me to get to know the language, the characters, the way they express themselves," he said. "Maybe it seems a little old-fashioned." To immerse himself more deeply still, Mr. Bechtolf wrote the book "Vorabend: Eine Aneignung" ("Preliminary Evening: An Appropriation"), which weaves a reading of the "Ring" from the stuff of memoir.
I grew up in Zurich, and for me Mr. Bechtolf's delivery of Wagner's text brings back the radio plays of my childhood and movies dubbed into German by actors trained in the same classic, carefully buttoned down manner. "Yes, that's the style," Mr. Bechtolf said. "No tricks. We recorded it that way too, in a tiny studio. It must have been 40 degrees in there." He meant Celsius, which equals 104 degrees Fahrenheit. "I was stuck there alone for weeks," he added. "The process was old-fashioned, so the work feels old-fashioned."
As a stage director Mr. Bechtolf is far from cutting edge, and his appointment as the next head of straight theater at the Salzburg Festival, announced last month, has been violently criticized by some for that reason. But his aesthetic is firmly grounded. "I don't like to play one profession off against another," he told an Austrian reporter when embarking on the "Ring." "But if the composer isn't at the center, there's something rotten. A director is only a manager. Our names should come last, after those of the conductor, the orchestra, the soloists."
Wilhelm Sinkovicz, the rapier-sharp critic of the Austrian daily Die Presse, had mixed feelings about Mr. Bechtolf's approach. The intricacy of the scene work reminded him of a chamber play. "But as in other recent productions," Mr. Sinkovicz wrote, "neither the director nor the performers rise to Wagner's challenge to present not human beings like you and me but gods, great ideas, primal powers. The true dimensions of cosmic drama are not even suggested."
At least Mr. Bechtolf may claim that he started on the right foot, and German-speaking Wagnerites with a "Ring" in their futures could do worse than to bone up with his recordings. Quibblers who follow with book in hand will be rewarded about once an hour with a mistake.
"No, it's not word perfect," Mr. Bechtolf said. "Yes, there was a producer who read along, but I think he nodded off once in a while. It happens to everyone. My excuse is that I'm not really a Wagnerite."