There are millions of people around the world who find the music of the Ring of the Nibelungen deeply moving but the characters absurd or repulsive, and the story meaningless or unintelligible but worth enduring because of the superb music. All this quite apart from the way the Nazis used the operas.
There are also people who prefer to do without the music but admire the story, which to them makes perfect sense. For them the director and actor Sven-Eric Bechtolf, the next head of the Salzburg Festival, has produced eight audio CDs that are available in the MP3 format from Col Legno, an Austrian label, at col-legno.com. The duration is six and a half hours. All the voices are read by Bechtolf himself. The four operas with music last seventeen.
I have not heard the CDs but I read about them in an article by Matthew Gurewitsch in The New York Times of August 30. The recordings were not an unqualified success, he reports, though many people were grateful for them. Some felt that he did not quite rise to Wagner’s challenge and present a cosmic drama. Faced with criticism of this sort, Bechntolf retorts, “I am not really a Wagnerite.” One of the reasons he made the recordings was that he was preparing himself for his direction of the Ring with music in the Vienna State Opera last May, and this was a useful method to become acquainted with the characters.
That there seems to be a market for the musicless Ring is a measure of the extraordinary appeal it still has not only in Germany but all over the world. No opera company is taken seriously until it has produced it, and it is always sold out.
There is a historic precedent for Bechtolf’s enterprise to which The New York Times refers. In February 1853, nine months before he began working on the score, and almost a quarter of a century before the opening of the Festspielhaus in Baureuth, specially built to house the operas, Wagner himself gave solo readings of the Ring, including one in the Hotel Baur au Lac in Zürich. Bechtolf could not resists doing the same in the same spot.
Wagner was a radical when he began writing the libretto. He finished the first instalment, Siegfried’s Tod, which turned into the last, Die Götterdämmerung, in the revolutionary year of 1848, in Dresden, where he fought alongside the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Wagner escaped before the Saxons and Prussians suppressed the uprising, five years before his reading – in exile – in the Baur au Lac.
The right-wing Nazis managed to play down the inconvenient truth of his left-wing past.