The Rhinegold synopsis
Music by Richard Wagner
Libretto by the composer
First performed: 1862
In the depths of the Rhine
The beginnings of the world and the waters of the Rhine are evoked. The Rhine-daughters – Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde – swim in the river, trying to catch each other. Flosshilde reprimands her sisters for neglecting their duty – to guard the gold.
Alberich watches the Rhine-daughters’ games before calling out to them. Each Rhine-daughter in turn teases him. As he makes a final desperate attempt to catch hold of one of them, the sun’s rays illuminate the treasure and the Rhine-daughters greet the shining gold. They tell Alberich about the secrets of the gold, and in an unguarded moment reveal that whoever possesses it and fashions a ring from it will enjoy limitless power; however, only he who renounces love can create the ring. Enraged by their continual taunting, Alberich indeed renounces love, snatches the gold and makes off with it back to Nibelheim.
An open space on a mountain top
Fricka rouses the dreaming Wotan, who hails the completion of Valhalla, the magnificent new home of the gods which has been built for them by the giants Fafner and Fasolt. Fricka reproaches her husband for the foolish bargain he has made with the giants, but he brushes her fears aside. Freia enters, pursued by the giants. She is terrifed and calls on her fellow gods for help. The giants demand payment for their work: they have been promised Freia. Wotan prevaricates: he is waiting for Loge, whom he has despatched to find some way out of this dilemma. Fasolt points to the runes carved on Wotan’s spear, and reminds him that he is obliged to rule the world by law. Fafner knows that Freia is guardian of the gods’ youthful appearance: without her they will age and die.
Loge arrives and announces that, having scoured the world, he can find nothing to equal Freia’s beauty or worth, and no one prepared to forswear the love of a woman – no one, that is, except the Nibelung Alberich. He then recounts Alberich’s theft of the Rhinegold, his renunciation of love and the forging of the ring. Loge calls on Wotan to restore the treasure to the Rhine-daughters, but ambition for riches and power now takes hold. The giants agree to accept the gold in exchange for Freia, whom they will take hostage until that evening. With Freia gone, the gods quickly age and weaken. Loge suggests that Wotan steal Alberich’s hoard; together they descend to Nibelheim.
In the depths of Nibelheim
Alberich rules Nibelheim unchallenged. The Nibelungs live in terror of him, including his brother, Mime, who has forged the tarnhelm, a magic helmet that can render its wearer invisible, transport him with lightning speed, or transform him into somebody or something else. Mime hopes to keep it for himself, but his plan is thwarted by Alberich, who snatches it from him, makes himself invisible and punishes him with unseen blows.
Wotan and Loge enter. Loge’s offer of help persuades Mime to tell them how the Nibelungs are no longer a contented people, but are subject to Alberich’s cruel power.
Alberich returns, driving his terrified workers before him. He boasts to Loge and Wotan of the power he exerts now that he has relinquished love: one day, he suggests, he will conquer even the gods. Loge plays upon Alberich’s conceit by requesting a demonstration of the tarnhelm’s magic properties. Alberich obliges by transforming himself into a large serpent. When asked to become something as small as possible, he turns himself into a toad, whereupon the two gods take him prisoner.
An open space on a mountain top
Wotan demands Alberich’s gold as his ransom. Using the power of the ring, Alberich commands the Nibelungs to bring up the treasure. Wotan insists on acquiring the tarnhelm and then demands the ring. Alberich refuses to part with it, so Wotan takes it by force. Once set free, Alberich lays a curse upon the ring: whoever possesses it shall be followed by greed, sorrow and death.
The giants return with Freia and the bargaining resumes. The gods must surrender gold measured against Freia’s body. The tarnhelm is also surrended and when Fasolt, who is in love with Freia, can still see her through the mass of gold, Fafner demands that Wotan’s ring should be added to the horde. Wotan refuses to part with it.
Erda, the earth-goddess and source of all the world’s wisdom, appears and warns Wotan of the terrible consequences if he keeps the ring. He must yield it and escape its curse.
Wotan wants to know more, but Erda disappears. Wotan relinquishes the ring to the giants and Freia is freed. Immediately they begin to quarrel over the division of the spoils. Loge advises Fasolt that he only needs the ring, but it is too late: Fasolt is murdered by his brother.
Donner creates a storm to clear the air. As the gods enter Valhalla, the Rhine-daughters bewail their lost gold.
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