- Reading time
- 6 min.
The lure of gold, the renunciation of love, a goddess promised to the giants as a reward for building Walhalla, a ring with terrible powers, a curse, a rainbow bridge … The first part of Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen conjures up an entire narrative and musical universe. Read the full synopsis of Das Rheingold and listen to some of the work’s musical highlights, selected and illuminated by conductor Alain Altinoglu.
On the bed of the river Rhine, Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde must watch over the gold buried underwater. The three careless Rhinemaidens enjoy making fun of Alberich, a member of the Nibelungen who’s entranced by their beauty.
All of a sudden, a ray of sunlight illuminates the Rhinegold and a golden gleam fills the river. Alberich wants to find out more about what he’s just seen. The unsuspecting Rhinemaidens reveal some vital information: whoever renounces love and forges a ring from the gold will have the power to rule the world. Alberich then vows to forever renounce love and steals the gold before fleeing. The Rhinemaidens are left distraught.
On the banks of the Rhine, Wotan, the ruler of the gods, and his wife Fricka gaze into the distance at Walhalla, the castle that the giants Fasold and Fafner have just built to house the gods and heroes. On Loge's advice, Wotan made the empty promise that he would give them Freia, the goddess of youth and fertility, whose golden apples keep the possessor eternally young.
Freia rushes in in a state of panic: she’s being chased by the two giants and begs Wotan not to abandon her. But Fasold and Fafner demand their due. Fricka tries to persuade her husband to renounce his promise. Froh and Donner, the goddess’s brothers, are ready to defend her. Wotan has to decide, but if he fails to honour the pact he’s made, he risks incurring the wrath of the giants.
Loge, the god of fire and Wotan’s faithful adviser, then appears. He explains that he just travelled the world in the hope of finding a reward for the two giants worthy of compensating the loss of Freia but unfortunately his search was in vain. During his journey, however, he learned of Alberich stealing the gold and tells Wotan, making sure the giants overhear him. The giants are particularly attentive to the information regarding the extraordinary power conferred by the ring forged from the gold. Fafner, tempted by this reward, convinces his partner to accept it. Wotan himself is attracted by the ring’s supreme power.
Before taking Freia away, the giants give Wotan an ultimatum: they will only free the goddess if the gold is in their possession by evening. Wotan then promises to go to Nibelheim, where Alberich reigns, to recover the treasure. Loge accompanies him. They do not have much time, because having to miss Freias golden apples, they grow old quickly.
In the kingdom of the Nibelungen, the hammering of the blacksmiths indicates that they’re busy melting down the Rhinegold and forging various objects from it, including a ring. Mime, Alberich’s brother, is finishing a magic helmet, the Tarnhelm, which lets the wearer take on any appearance they want or be invisible. Alberich, already in possession of the ring, seizes the precious helmet and becomes the absolute master of his realm.
Wotan and Loge arrive in the depths of the Earth, where they are greeted by Mime, who tells them how his people have been enslaved by Alberich. But Alberich cuts the conversation short and berates his brother for talking to strangers.
Left alone with Alberich, Wotan and Loge flatter him, saying that his recent exploits have caused such a sensation that they’ve come to witness them in person. The Nibelung then shows them the stolen gold and the magic helmet. To prove its value, he agrees to give a demonstration and turns himself into a large snake, then a small toad. Taking advantage of the toad’s small size, the gods capture Alberich and bring him to the surface of the Earth.
To regain his freedom, Alberich must give Wotan and Loge all the gold he has stolen. The prisoner accepts and, addressing the ring on his finger, immediately gets his people to bring the treasure. The gods demand that they also be given the Tarnhelm and the ring. Furious, Alberich relinquishes them against his will. Before disappearing, he puts a curse on anyone who will come into possession of the ring.
The Wagnerian paradox
Alain Altinoglu: Wagner, both the person and the artist, is a fascinating character, at once reactionary and revolutionary. He anticipated so many things, in the field of music of course, but also in politics, psychoanalysis … Even his intuitions about cosmogony contain a kernel of truth. When I conducted Tristan und Isolde, I told myself, ‘This is the one’. Then I told myself the same thing when I tackled Parsifal. And now I’m telling myself the same thing again with The Ring. The tetralogy contains a highly elaborate mix of leitmotifs that are constantly being transformed or interwoven with others. It’s not at all as fixed as you might think: this motif doesn’t necessarily stand for that. For example, the motifs that are first associated with gold and the ring evolve at one point into the power motif – which, some believe, becomes in turn the money motif later in the tetralogy. Wagner deliberately leaves open the exact meaning of these connections. Not everything is complex and layered, however. There are some naive passages that seem almost childlike, like the music of the giants. As it descends into the low tones, this basic march becomes almost comical.
During the transaction with the giants, they demand that Freia be covered in gold. Only then will they agree to set her free. The Tarnhelm is therefore added to the treasure, but Fasold and Fafner also demand the ring, now on Wotan’s finger, who doesn’t wish to part with it.
Erda, the goddess of the Earth, appears. She warns Wotan of the imminent decline of the gods and urges him to part with the ring so as not to suffer the curse uttered by Alberich. The ruler of the gods concedes and gives the precious ring to the giants, who keep their word and free Freia.
When dividing the treasure, Fasold and Fafner have a violent argument: Fafner kills his brother and escapes with all the gold. The curse of the ring has already taken effect.
It is now time for the gods to return to their castle. They set off for Walhalla, ignoring the lamentations of the Rhinemaidens who, in the distance, beg Wotan to do everything in his power to ensure that the gold is returned to them.