Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold)
Opera Number One of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (a.k.a. the Ring Cycle)
First performance: Königlich Hof- und Nationaltheater, Munich, 22 September 1869
First performance as part of the completed Der Ring des Nibelungen: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 13 August 1876

Das Rheingold is the first opera in the Ring Cycle. It is in one act (translation: no breaks) and is the shortest of the four Ring Cycle works, clocking in at about 2 hours. Wagner envisioned the Ring Cycle as 4 consecutive nights of opera, with Das Rheingold serving as a prologue to the three nights of the much longer Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung.

Who's Who - Characters and voice parts

Wotan, Ruler of the Gods (baritone)
Fricka, Goddess of Love, Wotan's wife (mezzo-soprano)
Freia, Goddess of Youth and Beauty, Fricka's sister (soprano)
Loge, God of Fire and Trickery (tenor)
Donner, God of Thunder (bass)
Froh, God of Spring (tenor)
Erda, Goddess of the Earth (contralto)

Dwarfs (Nibelungs):
Alberich (bass-baritone)
Mime (tenor)

Fasolt (bass)
Fafner (bass)

The Rhinemaidens:
Woglinde (soprano)
Wellgunde (soprano)
Floßhilde (contralto)

Scene 1: The Rhine
After an orchestral prelude, the opera opens in the Rhine as Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Floßhilde (the three Rhinemaidens) frolic and play. They are soon interrupted by Alberich, a lecherous dwarf who decides to capture the Rhinemaidens. However, they easily keep out of Alberich's grasp, taunting him. Suddenly, a brilliant beam of sunlight illuminates the Rhinegold. The Rhinemaidens tell Alberich that the Rhinegold is all-powerful; a ring made from it would give the wearer the power to rule the world. However, they know that the Rhinegold is safe beneath the waters of the Rhine; anyone who wanted to steal it would have to renounce love. Of course, Alberich proceeds to renounce love and steal the Rhinegold. Dwarves. *shakes head*

Scene 2: A mountain glade
From a bed of flowers, Wotan and Fricka admire their new home, a veritable fortress. Wotan is especially pleased with it, but the castle will come at a great cost for Fricka; Wotan promised the giants Fafner and Fasolt that he would give them Fricka's sister Freia as payment for construction. Wotan explains that he never had any intent to give away his sister-in-law. When the giants show up looking for their payment, Wotan tells them that he'll give them something else, ANYTHING else, as payment. The giants only want Freia; Fasolt has become quite smitten with the goddess, while Fafner want the golden apples that Freia watches over (the apples are the source of the gods' eternal youth and power). Fasolt and Fafner try to abduct Freia, but Froh and Donner (two other gods) stop them. Wotan steps in, admitting that, yes, he had given his word to the giants.

At this point, Loge appears and tells Wotan that, if the giants want Freia, Wotan should just give them Freia; Fasolt and Fafner probably won't be willing to give up love for worldly treasure. In Loge's travels of the world, he's only discovered one being who wanted riches instead of love. He then proceeds to tell the gods and giants about Alberich and the Rhinegold, and says that the Rhinegold has now been crafted into a powerful ring. Upon hearing about the Ring, all the gods want it, as do the giants. Wotan likes the absolute power that comes with it; Fricka believes it will allow her to keep her cheating husband in check; Fafner and Fasolt see it as something far more valuable to them than Freia would be; and Loge, with the sole honorable intention of the group, wants to return it to the Rhinemaidens. The giants, wary of being tricked, take Freia with them as a hostage. They warn the gods that Wotan must have the Ring for them when they return or they'll take Freia forever. Without Freia's golden apples, the gods immediately begin to age, and Wotan resolves to get the Ring. He and Loge set off for Nibelheim (the netherworld) to find Alberich.

Scene 3: Nibelheim (the Netherworld)
Alberich, now all-powerful thanks to the Rheingold, is forcing his slaves to mine gold for him. The sound of anvils rings throughout Nibelheim, and Alberich berates another dwarf, Mime, for not getting his Tarnhelm (magic helmet) finished on time. Alberich tries on the Tarnhelm, and is delighted to find that it works perfectly; he becomes invisible, allowing him to thrash Mime without Mime being able to defend himself. Drunk with power, Alberich heads off into the other caves of the Nibelheim to torment others.

Wotan and Loge soon arrive and find Mime. Mime doesn't recognize the gods, and he complains to them about Alberich's cruelty. Wotan and Loge offer to aid in freeing the other Nibelungs. Alberich returns and, also not recognizing the two gods, tells Wotan and Loge of his plan to topple the gods. Loge, plotting, asks what would happen if someone should take the Ring while Alberich sleeps. Alberich tells Loge about the Tarnhelm, and Loge asks to see what the Tarnhelm can do. Alberich uses it to turn himself into a giant snake. Loge and Wotan pretend to be afraid, and Loge says that it would be even better if Alberich could turn into something small, like a toad, so that he could hide from any danger. Arrogantly, Alberich does just this. Before Alberich knows what is happening, Wotan and Loge capture him, take away the Tarnhelm, and drag him back above ground.

Scene 4: A mountain glade (As Scene 2)
Wotan and Loge tell Alberich that they'll let him go, but only if he gives them all of the gold that his slaves had mined for him. Alberich figures that the power of the Ring will easily allow him to replenish his gold supply, so he agrees. He summons the slaves (and the gold) to the surface, and then demands that the gods return the Tarnhelm. Loge tells him that the magic helmet is to be included as part of the treasure. Again, Alberich reasons with himself that the Ring will give him power over Mime, who'll easily make another Tarnhelm for him. He agrees to leave the Tarnhelm, but this is still not enough; Wotan asks for the Ring as well. Alberich tells Wotan that the god will be as much a thief as he is, but Wotan takes the Ring anyway, leaving Alberich with nothing. After being untied, the now-infuriated Alberich curses the Ring, saying that anyone who possesses the Ring will become obsessed with protecting it, while those who don't have it will be consumed by envy. The Ring will bring only jealousy and death.

As Alberich retreats, the other gods enter, followed by Fasolt, Fafner, and Freia. The giants demand enough gold to completely hide Freia from view, as they are upset by having to give her back. The gods pile up all of Alberich's gold, but Fafner says that he can still see Freia's hair. Loge reluctantly adds the magic Tarnhelm to the treasure. Fasolt then says that he can still see Freia's eyes, and asks that the crack in the treasure be filled… with the Ring. Loge says that the Ring belongs to the Rhinemaidens, but Wotan replies that the Ring is his now and he doesn't plan to give it to either the Rhinemaidens or the giants. As Loge, Wotan, and the two giants fight over the true ownership of the Ring, Erda appears. Erda, who knows and sees all, tells Wotan to get rid of the Ring, as it will bring destruction to the gods. Wotan finally hands over the Ring to the giants, who in turn release Freia. However, the Ring's curse kicks in, causing Fasolt and Fafner to fight over the Ring until Fafner kills Fasolt in a jealous fit. Fafner gathers his sizeable treasure, including the Tarnhelm and the Ring, and leaves. Wotan considers Erda's cryptic words, and Fricka tells him to think about their new castle instead. As the sun sets, Wotan names the palace Valhalla, and the gods all enter their new home. Loge mysteriously says that the other gods are going to their death, and then he tells the Rhinemaidens that their gold is gone now. The Rhinemaidens mourn for their lost treasure.

Up next: Die Walküre

It's Wagner... It's opera... There are motifs. Just about every character, object, and emotion in the Ring Cycle has a motif associated with it. A motif, or leitmotif, is a short musical phrase or idea that recurs throughout a piece. Wagner takes this idea one step further, using themes in Das Rheingold that recur not only here, but also in the other Ring Cycle operas. For example, the Sword motif is introduced in Das Rheingold, but is repeated in the later operas. The motifs in Das Rheingold include the Rhine motif, the Rhinegold motif, the Renunciation of Love motif, the Ring motif, the Giants motif, the Fire of Loge motif, the Tarnhelm motif... the list goes on. Wagner uses these motifs in a couple of ways. First, the obvious way, is to announce the appearance or entrance of something on stage. When Fasolt and Fafner come on stage, the Giants motif sounds. The other main use of the motifs is to suggest what ISN'T on stage at the time. For example, when Erda warns of the impending doom that the Ring will bring to the gods, the Rhine motif sounds; this foreshadows the end of Götterdämmerung, when the Ring is returned to the Rhinemaidens while the gods are consumed by fire.

The mythological elements are based on Norse mythology, the names being changed to their German equivalents. You may know Wotan better as Odin or Woden, and perhaps "Loge" makes you scratch your head, but you might know "Loki" instead. The events of the Ring Cycle in general are a slightly Wagner-ized version of what leads up to Ragnarok, and most of what happens can be found in some form in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Nibelungenlied.

Parallel figures in Norse Mythology:*
Wotan = Odin or Woden
Fricka = Frigga or Frigg
Freia = Freya
Loge = Loki
Donner = Thor
Froh = Balder or Baldur
Alberich = Andvari
Fafner = Fafnir

Things that happen between Das Rheingold and Die Walküre:

  • Wotan fathers 11 children: with Erda, he fathers the 9 Valkyries, and with a mortal woman, he fathers the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde.
  • The giant Fafner uses the Tarnhelm to transform himself into a dragon so he can guard his treasure.
  • *For more about Norse mythology, see Norse mythology; for the specifics about the Ring Cycle's use of myth, check out Mythological origins of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.

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