An introduction to The Rhinegold

The pinnacle of operatic fantasies, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is a titanic mythological epic, split into four parts. In 2023, we’re presenting the first part, The Rhinegold (Das Rheingold). If you’re unsure what a Ring Cycle is, or want a peek at what these dastardly deities are up to, read on. If you’re a fan of fantasy on an epic scale, like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, we think you’ll love The Rhinegold.

Full of quarrelling gods, spiteful dwarfs and tempestuous nymphs, The Rhinegold is set in the rich and fantastical world of Norse mythology, with the textual basis in the Nibelungenlied (also known as the Song of the Nibelungs), an early 13th century Germanic text with a basis (most likely) in oral storytelling – there are striking similarities between this and the Saga of the Völsungs, mixed with tales from the Poetic Edda. 

If you’re a fan of the Norse myths, or are a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Thor films, you’re likely to recognise a few characters – though likely under different names. Wagner, naturally, used the Germanic forms of the gods’s names: the familiar Odin (or Oðinn) is known as Wotan, closer therefore to the Anglo-Saxon form of the character, Woden – where we get ‘Wednesday’ from (Woden’s day). 

Maybe you’ve only seen The Valkyrie. Maybe you’re all new to this opera lark and the Ring Cycle for you is a marriage-based cycling event. 

We’re here to set you straight: Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is truly his magnum opus – a 4 instalment, Norse mythology inspired, 16 hour epic operatic story. Composed over the period of 26 years, and first performed at the inaugural  Bayreuth Festival in 1876, a festival presented by the composer in celebration of his output. 

If you missed The Valkyrie, there’s no better time to jump on the wagon than now: The Rhinegold is the first in the cycle. As described by Wagner as ‘Ein Bühnenfestspiel für drei tage und linen Vorabend’ (a stage festival play for three days and a preliminary evening), think of The Rhinegold as The Hobbit to The Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods version of The Lord of the Rings. The Rhinegold acts as a prelude and prequel, explaining the origins of the titular Ring of the Nibelungens, from which much of the drama of the saga is based around. 

Read more about operas based on myths and legends.

Amidst the swell and churn of the Rhine river, we find the Rhinemaidens – water nymphs, personifications of the water itself. They laugh and joke, mostly at the expense of the Nibelung dwarf Alberich, who desperately tries to woo them. When Alberich notices the gold at the bottom of the river, the sprites explain that a ring forged of this gold will lead to its wearer dominating the world, with the caveat that the bearer must denounce worldly attractions. To their shock (though well deserved), the usually lovestruck dwarf does just this, snatching the gold from the depth. 

The power-hungry Wotan, always on the lookout for ways to seize power, hears of this Ring, but not before being chewed out by his wife Fricka (analogous to Frigg) for promising her sister Freia (Freyja, but conflated with Iðunn, whose enchanted apples give the gods extended life) to the giants Fafner and Fasolt as payment for the building of the grand hall Valhöll. To circumvent this, Wotan promises them Alberich’s Ring to sate their greed, and head off with demigod of fire Loge to find it. 

Meanwhile back at the Nibelung ranch, Alberich has been busy enslaving his entire race, including his blacksmith brother Mime, who has made Tarnhelm, a helmet who can turn the wearer invisible (an artifact similar to Hades’ Cap of Invisibility in Greek myth) or shapeshift into any animal. The gods arrive and trick him into turning into a toad, at which point they capture him.

Wotan and Loge return to the mountaintop and extort Alberich for his grand wealth, including the Tarnhelm and the magic Ring. Alberich is loath to relinquish such a treasure, and lays a curse upon the Ring: that until the Ring is his again, it will make any who see it murderously jealous of the owner, seeking it for their own. 

The giants demand that enough gold is given to completely cover Freia, which takes Alberich’s lot completely. But, in a stomach turning twist, Fasolt points out a crack in the gold, for which the Ring is a perfect fit. Despite his protestations, the giants take the Ring from him, then argue over it themselves, leading to Fafner clubbing Fasolt to death. The gods retreat to Valhalla as the Rhinemaidens mourn the loss of their treasure, condemning the gods and their selfish nature. 

After last year’s rapturous production of The Valkyrie, Richard Jones returns for The Rhinegold, bringing his stylised and intense staging back as part of ENO’s ongoing Ring Cycle. This prelude is more fantastical in nature than its sequel, but Jones is set to ground it in a reality that presents the gods as entities just as human as us – and if anything, more fallible. 

Having worked with ENO on productions such as The Mastersingers of Nuremberg and Rodelinda in the past, Richard Jones’s vision of The Rhinegold is sure to blow you away. Balancing a traditional interpretation of the mythological and setting with a 21st Century point of view, expect a ground-breaking new production to frame one of opera’s most beloved stories.