These operas were Wagner's biggest epic (this coming from a composer who was known for "big" operas in a time when bigger was better). The overall plot revolves around a ring which, if you are willing to forsake love, will make you all powerful. But the ring is cursed and it keeps passing from one person to the next. There are plots of incest, betrayal and lots and lots of Norse gods and goddesses. To add to the epic feel of this, Wagner used leitmotifs, small melodic lines, which represented various themes throughout all 4 operas (which, BTW, is about 18 hours of music).

The Ring Cycle opera best known is Die Walkurie, probably because of its most famous song "The Flight of the Valkeries" which was also a leitmotif. Alas, now it (and a lot of Wagner's work) is linked to the Nazis. This is unfounded as while no one denies that Wagner was an anti-semite (certainly a strike against him as a person), his music dealt with mystical themes outside of the real world and that idiot, Hitler, unfortunately took a liking to Wagner's music and used it in concentration camps which has scarred a generation of Jews and forever given the Ring Cycle a bad name.

The Nibelungs are the race of dwarfs who dwell under the earth, enslaved by Alberich their lord. The Ring, forged by Alberich from stolen gold, gives mastery over all the world. The curse upon the Ring ruins all those who desire this power and seize the Ring.

The gods at the height of their glory cannot escape their Fate: Wotan the king of the gods desires the Ring, is swayed by love, lays aside his kingship, and he and all gods will be destroyed.

Siegfried the human, favourite of Wotan, favourite of Brünnhilde the beloved daughter of Wotan, is the hero who has never known fear. He alone can reforge Nothung, his father's sword that was broken: he alone can slay the dragon Fafner who guards the hoard and the Ring: he alone can pierce the magic fire that imprisons Brünnhilde.

Their love alone survives their death, the downfall of the gods, the obliteration of the earth by flood and of the heavens by fire. Human love survives.

Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Ring of the Nibelung, is Richard Wagner's monumental masterwork, a cycle of four gigantic operas, spread over four nights. It is one of the most extraordinary, commanding, visionary masterpieces in any art that has ever been created. Its character are gods, giants, dragons, dwarfs, humans, the Fates, the Valkyries, but its timeless themes are love, power, courage, death, trust, and beauty. Lust for power destroys everything, and love redeems everything: beyond death, beyond the ending of the world.

The four parts are Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The first two parts were performed separately in 1869 and 1870 (already twenty years in the making), but the others were not heard until the first performance of the entire Ring Cycle, in the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, the theatre that Wagner had built for his own works, on the evenings of 13, 14, 16, and 17 August 1876. Bayreuth is still the spiritual hearth of Wagner's works and his family still control the productions there. Wagner actually called it not a tetralogy but a trilogy, with the somewhat shorter Rheingold (still a massive opera) named as a prelude to the other three (Ein Bühnenfestspiel für drei Tage und einen Vorabend - a stage-festival-play for three days and a pre-evening). The title of the whole is often (less correctly, I believe) given as Der Ring der Nibelungen, with plural 'of the Nibelungs'.

It is derived from the Nibelungenlied, the great Middle German epic, and from Old Norse stories of Völsunga Saga and the Eddas, with text entirely by Wagner.

Many people can't take it, even those who love other opera; I'm not a great fan of it myself, but I recognize that as a failure in me. It is enormous, it requires long effort to appreciate all the slow passages. It is, despite the length and the music, a play, a drama, as much as an opera. The characterization has that intensity; and it cannot be entirely understood by listening only to the best parts of the music.

Everyone knows the Ride of the Valkyries and can picture flaxen-haired divas in horned helmets. The classic Warner Brothers cartoon What's Opera, Doc? summarizes it beautifully, as does the hilarious twenty-minute analysis by Anna Russell. But one day, opera lovers have to immerse themselves in the real thing, all of it. I haven't yet. Before I die I must.

It would be impossible to detail the plots of the four operas here; we need individual nodes for each of those. For now, here is a synopsis condensed as far as possible. Quotes from Anna Russell are italicized.

In the River Rhine, Alberich the dwarf lusts after the frolicking Rhine-maidens. They tell him about the Rhine-gold, which if forged into a ring would make the owner ruler of the world, provided he were to renounce love forever. This Alberich does.

Meanwhile, in heaven, the gods are admiring their new palace Valhalla, built for them by the giants Fafner and Fasolt, who are now demanding their payment, the beautiful spring goddess Freia. Wotan the king of the gods however has no intention of giving her up, so the giants kidnap her. Freia holds the golden apples the gods eat to remain immortally young, so without her they begin to age. They agree to swap Freia for another immeasurable treasure, the Rhine-gold, though already Wotan wants the Ring of power for himself. Now they have to steal that from Alberich. The trickster fire-god Loge tricks Alberich and they extract the treasure from him. Alberich curses the Ring.

The giants demand all their due, even the magic helmet Tarnhelm, and finally even the Ring itself. They get it; it is cursed; they quarrel. Fafner kills Fasolt and turns into a dragon to guard his hoard.

Meanwhile, on earth, the hero Siegmund seeks shelter in a house in the forest. Here he meets Sieglinde, who is in fact his twin sister, and her husband Hunding. In Hunding's house is a world tree, into which is thrust the mightiest sword in the world, called Nothung. Wotan himself placed it there, in the guise of the Wanderer. He had come down to earth to beget mortal children Siegmund and Sieglinde, knowing that in their hands rested the world's fate. Siegmund and Hunding find their kin are enemies, and they must fight.

Wotan commands his daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, to intercede on behalf of his son Siegmund, but Fricka his queen holds him to his oath to defend marriage. Brünnhilde rebels against her father's new command and continues to aid Siegmund. Wotan comes down and shatters the sword Nothung, and Siegmund is slain.

Brünnhilde flees with Sieglinde, now pregnant with her brother's child, and with the shards of Nothung. Her sister Valkyries ride, bearing heroes to Valhalla. But Wotan strips Brünnhilde of her immortality and condemns her to sleep until a man finds and takes her. At her plea, he commands Loge to raise a magic fire around her that none but the greatest of warriors can penetrate. Sieglinde dying in childbirth, the infant Siegfried and the pieces of Nothung are taken up by Mime the dwarf, brother of Alberich. Remember Alberich?

Siegfried grows to adulthood with Mime and finally wrings the story of his birth from him. Mime cannot forge a sword that withstands Siegfried's strength, and finally Siegfried himself mends Nothung, and goes to seek Fafner the dragon. Mime's secret motive is to seize the Ring and the Tarnhelm, which enables the possessor to take any shape. Siegfried slays Fafner and burns his finger on the dragon's blood; tasting it enables him to understand the language of the birds, who tell him of Mime's treachery, and of the beautiful maiden Brünnhilde imprisoned in the ring of fire. Slaying Mime, Siegfried encounters Wotan, in his Wanderer guise, who has been seeking answers to the riddles of Fate from Erda, the Earth. Siegfried shatters the spear of Wotan, who realizes that his age is passing, and that human love will now take over. Siegfried rescues the mortal Brünnhilde.

Siegfried gives Brünnhilde the Ring as a token of love, and goes on a Rhine journey to the court of Gunther the Gibichung, and his sister Gutrune, urged on by their half-brother Hagen the son of Alberich; who all conspire to take the Ring of power and marry Siegfried to Gutrune, who as it happens is the only woman he has ever met who isn't his aunt... I'm not making this up, you know! They drug him to wipe his memory of Brünnhilde. She, betrayed, tells them his one point of vulnerability, and they slay him.

But on learning the truth, she curses the gods and resolves to take back the Ring to the Rhine-maidens. She rides her steed Grane into Siegfried's funeral pyre, the Rhine floods and covers the earth, and the fire rises up and consumes Valhalla, and ends the reign of the gods.

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