Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner
October 16, 18, 24, 2014, at 8 pm
Matinée October 26 at 2:30 pm
In German with English Surtitles
Das Rheingold is a one-act opera with no intermission.
Approximate running time is 150 minutes.
A very long time ago, a dwarf stole a golden treasure, and from it he forged a ring of power. But the price of power is the renunciation of love.
The first opera in Wagner's monumental Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold sets in motion the conflicts that will ultimately destroy the gods. Here is a world of giants and river nymphs, of dwarves that toil beneath the earth and gods that rule from the mountaintop hall of Valhalla.
Wagner reworked ancient legends to create a compelling new myth that feels as old as time – a towering epic told in sumptuous musical language, a profound, richly textured fusion of music and drama.
With the Victoria Symphony
First Performance as a single opera:
Munich, Königliches Hof und National Theater, September 22, 1869
First Performance as part of the Ring Cycle:
Bayreuth, Festspielhaus, August 13, 1876
Prelude and Scene 1: In the depths of the Rhine
The opera opens with a hushed low E flat on the double basses, which is sustained for 136 bars, as the other instruments gradually join in with arpeggios on the E flat major chord. This simplest of music quietly grows, creating waves of arpeggios that build in pitch and volume, gathering force and suggesting the swirling, surging waters of the Rhine, flowing ever faster and deeper.
Now we hear the voices of the Rhinemaidens as they frolic in the water. One of the three, Flosshilde, warns her sisters to pay attention to their task of guarding the Rhine gold. They continue to play until they are interrupted by Alberich, a Nibelung dwarf. Captivated by the trio, he approaches, watches the Rhinemaidens with naïve pleasure, and begins to flirt with them. They flatter him, lead him on, then turn on him with insults, calling him loathsome, hideous, toadlike. He is stunned, and then furious at their betrayal.
As the glow of the sun suddenly strikes the Rhine gold, the Rhinemaidens praise the radiant treasure.
Alberich asks what it is that shines so, and they tell him about the treasure they are guarding. Anyone who seizes the Rhine gold and fashions it into a ring will attain world domination and all the wealth that comes with it. However, the Rhine gold can be obtained only by someone who is willing to renounce love.
The Rhinemaidens are confident that Alberich is the last creature on earth who would give up a chance at love. But by now Alberich, disheartened and enraged by the Rhinemaidens' cruelty, feels he has nothing to lose. Love may be denied him, but pleasure, wealth, and power are in his grasp. Declaring that he will forge the magical ring, he curses love, and wrests the gold from the rock. The Rhinemaidens try in vain to stop him.
Scene 2: A rocky summit high above the Rhine
Wotan, leader of the gods, has hired two giants, Fafner and Fasolt, to build him a magnificent mountaintop fortress. It is now complete, and Wotan admires the new hall – the embodiment of his power and status:
The immortal work is finished!
The castle of the Gods on the mountain top!
Proudly rise those glittering walls which in dreams I designed,
which my will brought to life.
Wotan's wife Fricka reminds him of the price he has promised to the builders – her sister Freia, the goddess of love, youth, and beauty. Fricka berates Wotan for the loveless, cold-hearted folly of the agreement, which he made without consulting her. Wotan reminds Fricka that she too wanted the castle, but she had longed for a home where he would settle down quietly and be faithful to her.
But you, when you planned it, thought of war and arms alone:
glory and might all that you cared for;
you built it for storm and adventure, constructed a fort, not a home.
Wotan counters that he needs to be free to roam and rule the world. Fricka is not pacified:
Ruthless, heartless, scornful man! for the vain delights of ruling the world,
you'd carelessly gamble away love and woman's worth?
Wotan assures her he has no intention of giving up Freia, who now arrives in great distress, for the giants are on their way. Wotan tells Fricka he is relying on Loge, the demigod of fire, to come up with a brilliant scheme to get him out of the agreement with the giants. Fricka is skeptical. The giants are coming to collect their pay, and the unreliable Loge is nowhere to be seen.
Fafner and Fasolt arrive and announce that while Wotan and Fricka slept, the giants laboured to raise the walls of the fortress. Now they want their wages. Wotan stalls, pretending to have forgotten the agreement, and then pressing them to name a price other than Freia. Fasolt is amazed that Wotan would break his word and reminds him that all his power and authority are based on the treaties he has made, which are engraved on his spear. What you are, you are only through your treaties, and all your power is based on your bonds.
Fasolt points out that he may be just a simple-minded giant, but Wotan would be wise to learn from him. Wotan tries to laugh off the original contract as a joke and asks what earthly use Freia would be to the giants. Fasolt's answer is simple: We blockheads toil away in order to win a lovely, gentle woman to live with us poor creatures.
Fafner tells his brother that Freia's value lies in the fact that she grows the golden apples that keep the gods young and strong. If she is gone, the gods will lose their beauty and strength and will wither and die.
Donner, god of thunder and lightning, arrives with Froh, a god associated with sunshine, gentle rain, fertility, and peace. Both are eager to rescue their sister Freia. Donner threatens the giants with his mighty hammer, but Wotan stops him: the agreement carved on the shaft of his spear must not be broken through force.
Loge finally appears, and Wotan demands to know how he plans to extricate them from the disastrous contract with the giants. When Loge insists that he had promised only to think about how to save Freia, the family insult him, and Froh tells him his name should be not Loge but Lüge (Liar). Aggrieved that his valiant efforts to help are met with neither thanks nor praise, Loge tells the gods of his unstinting efforts to find something that the giants would prize more than a woman's beauty and love.
Wherever there's life and breath in water, earth, and air,
I asked ... what might man deem mightier
than woman's delights and worth?
Only one man I saw who had renounced love...
Loge recounts the story he heard from the Rhinemaidens about Alberich and the theft of the Rhinegold. The Rhinemaidens have begged him to persuade Wotan to avenge them and give them back their gold.
This revelation allows Wotan to strike a new bargain with the giants, who are old enemies of Alberich. Loge and Wotan will steal the wealth that Alberich is amassing through the power of the ring, and give it to the giants who, in the meantime, will hold onto Freia as a hostage.
Loge continues to press for Wotan to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens, but Wotan already covets the ring for himself. Fricka too wants the ring in order to charm her husband and keep him faithful; she has no sympathy for the Rhinemaidens who have already seduced far too many men.
The giants depart with Freia, and the gods immediately begin to grow pale and weak; the hammer slips out of Donner's hand, and Wotan seems to have grown old. Loge realizes that without Freia and her apples, the gods are losing their youth and vigour. Her absence doesn't affect him, for he is only half a god, and Freia has never shared the apples with him.
Wotan and Loge resolve to leave immediately for Nibelheim to win the gold from Alberich. Wotan guiltily refuses to descend through the Rhine, and the pair slip through a crevice in the rock as the family wish them luck.
Scene 3: The Caverns of Nibelheim
Alberich has used the power of the ring to enslave the Nibelungs. He is driving them to mine gold, forge it, and pile up ever more treasure for their master. He has also forced his brother Mime to forge him a magic helmet, the Tarnhelm, which will give its wearer the power to become invisible or to change shape. Mime had hoped to keep the Tarnhelm for himself, but Alberich roughly seizes it from him and puts it on. Alberich immediately vanishes and begins striking Mime violently as the terrified dwarf howls and tries to evade the unseen blows.
Alberich then goes off to threaten his Nibelung slaves, whom he can now spy on with ease.
Loge and Wotan arrive and come across the cowering Mime, who tells them of Alberich's tyranny. Alberich returns, driving the Nibelungs before him, browbeating them, and then sending them back to the forges and mines for more.
Tremble in terror, you wretched slaves: at once obey the lord of the ring!
Alberich is suspicious of his visitors, but cannot resist boasting of his wealth and power. The gold they see before them is merely that day's haul. With his wealth he will emerge from Nibelheim and become master of the whole world.
For first your men shall yield to my might,
then your pretty women, who despise me and jeer,
the dwarf shall force to his pleasure, though love does not smile on him. ...
Beware of the dark legion,
When the Nibelung treasure shall rise out of the silent depths into the light of day!
Loge voices his admiration but asks how Alberich can prevent one of the Nibelungs from stealing the ring and with it all his power. Alberich assures him that with the Tarnhelm he can assume any form he wishes. Loge asks Alberich for a demonstration of this marvellous helmet. Alberich puts on the Tarnhelm and is transformed into a dragon. Loge is suitably terrified, but then expresses skepticism: it would be useful if Alberich could become tiny in order to hide from danger in the smallest of crevices – but that surely would be too hard to do. Unable to resist the challenge, Alberich turns himself into a toad – and Wotan and Loge pounce on the creature, capturing it.
Scene 4: The Mountaintop Fortress of the Gods
Wotan and Loge return to the mountaintop with Alberich and order him to summon the Nibelungs to bring up the hoard of gold. When Loge insists on also keeping the Tarnhelm, Alberich consoles himself with the thought that the ring will let him force Mime to forge another magic helmet. But Wotan demands the ring, telling Alberich he has no right to keep what he stole from the Rhinemaidens. Alberich denounces Wotan for his hypocrisy, but Wotan tears the ring from Alberich's finger and then tells him he is free to go. Before he leaves, Alberich places a fatal curse on the ring, promising that all who wear it will meet their doom.
Its gold brought me unmeasured power,
now its magic shall bring but death to the one who holds it!...
While he lives, let the lord of the Ring waste away as the slave of the Ring,
Until I hold once more in my hand that which has been stolen from me!
The giants arrive with Freia. Distressed at having to give her up, Fasolt insists that they pile up the gold until her beauty is completely hidden from his sight. The gods heap up the treasure while the giants look for chinks and crevices.
When they have run out of gold, Fafner can still see a bit of Freia's hair, and Loge reluctantly adds the Tarnhelm to the pile. But Fasolt still sees her beautiful eyes and cannot tear himself from her until they too are hidden from him. All that is left is the ring, which Wotan declares he will keep for himself. Loge says the ring must be returned to the Rhinemaidens, while the other gods press Wotan to surrender it to the giants.
Wotan refuses to give up the ring, and Fasolt and Fafner prepare to depart with Freia, this time forever. Suddenly Erda, the primeval earth goddess, appears, warning Wotan to yield the cursed ring. She foretells that all things will perish, and that a dark day will fall on the gods. As she disappears, Wotan tries to follow her to learn more, but Froh and Fricka hold him back, insisting that he do as she says.
Wotan throws the ring on the pile and the giants release Freia. As the giants pack up the treasure, they begin to squabble over how to divide it. Loge suggests that Fasolt keep the ring and give the rest to Fafner. The brothers battle over the ring, and Fafner kills Fasolt, then departs with Freia's ransom.
Horrified at the power of the curse, Wotan determines that he must descend to Erda to learn more. But Fricka tells him their new home waits to welcome its lord.
The fortress is shrouded in mist, and Donner uses the power of his hammer to gather the mists into a great cloud and with thunder and lightning to sweep the fog away and clear the air. Once the stormclouds lift, Froh conjures up a glorious rainbow bridge. Wotan, who is already quietly devising a plan to regain the ring, names their home Valhalla, and leads the gods across the bridge.
Loge contemplates his options – he is tempted to turn himself back into fire, for he senses the gods are rushing toward their downfall. As he goes to join the gods, the lament of the Rhinemaidens can be heard. Wotan tells Loge to shut them up. Loge calls down sardonically, telling the maidens that since the gold no longer shines on them, they'll have to bask in the newfound radiance of the gods.
The opera ends with the lament of the Rhinemaidens mourning their lost Rhine gold.
There are no human characters in Das Rheingold – although the nymphs, gods, giants, and dwarves are all flawed in very human ways. Only in the later Ring operas do human and half-human characters appear. Most of the characters are based on Norse mythology, but Wagner adapted them in many ways.
The three Rhinemaidens or Rhine-daughters, Flosshilde, Wellgunde and Woglinde, are seductive nymphs living in the Rhine River. Their sole duty is to guard the Rhine-gold, but they're too flighty to do it very well. Fricka in particular disapproves of the "watery brood" who have seduced so many men. Although they resemble nymphs in various sources, they were essentially created by Wagner.
The Nibelungs are a race of skilled miners and smiths who live underground in Nibelheim (Wagner's Germanization of the Norse Niflheim /Mist World) – although, in the Norse sources, the dwarves (or black elves) live, not in Niflheim, but in Nidavellir or Svartálfaheimr. The dwarves are said to have created such wondrous treasures as Thor's hammer, Mjöllnir, Odin's spear Gungnir, and Draupnir, a gold ring owned by Odin.
To confuse matters more, the Nibelungs in the Nibelungenlied are the Burgundian royal family, who possess a great treasure called the Nibelung hoard. (But Wagner calls them the Gibichungs in the final Ring opera, Götterdämmerung / Twilight of the Gods)
Alberich is the character after whom the entire Ring Cycle is named. He is the Nibelung who renounces love and steals the Rhinegold, from which he forges the ring that gives its wearer world domination. It is his curse on the ring that echoes down the years of the cycle. Wagner based him on two characters – Alberich, a dwarf in the Nibelungenlied who guards the Nibelung hoard and possesses a magic cloak of strength and invisibility, and the dwarf Andvari from the tale of the Otter's Ransom in Snorri's Edda.
Mime, Alberich's maltreated brother, is a superb blacksmith, who on Alberich's orders forges the magic Tarnhelm – a helmet that lets its wearer change shape or become invisible. Mime tries in vain to keep it for himself. He is known as Mimer in the Nibelungenlied. He will reappear as the treacherous foster father of Siegfried in the third Ring opera.
Wotan: (Odin in Norse mythology) is king of the Gods, protector of treaties and promises (save for his marriage vows). Before Rheingold starts, Wotan has sacrificed one of his eyes to be able to drink from Mimir's Well of Wisdom. In the Norse sources, his spear Gungnir was fashioned by dwarves and always hits its mark. Wagner changes this: Wotan's spear is made from the wood of the world ash tree Yggdrasil and on it are engraved the laws and contracts by which he rules (unless he can find a loophole). Wednesday is named after him.
Loge, the demigod of fire, is Wagner's amalgamation of two Norse gods, Logi (god of fire) and Loki the trickster. fire and cunning. Wotan relies on Loge to extricate him from the rash promise he has made to the Giants, and it is Loge's cunning that allows them to capture Alberich. While he is mischievous and deceitful (Froh suggests his name should really be Lüge, meaning 'a lie'), yet he carries an odd moral voice &ndash he is the only character who presses for the ring to be returned to the Rhinemaidens, and it is he who sees most clearly that the gods may be heading for disaster. Loge appears only in Das Rheingold, but his flickering fire music returns for the lighting of Brünnhilde's rock in Die Walküre and the final burning of Valhalla in Götterdämmerung.
Fricka (Frigg in Norse mythology) is Wotan's wife, the goddess of marriage, home and family. She acts as Wotan's nagging conscience, and perks up at the thought of the Rhinegold as an ornament she might wear to charm her husband into staying at home.
Freia (Freyja in Norse) is Fricka's sister, the goddess of Love, Youth and Beauty. She tends the golden apples, which give the gods eternal youth and immortality. She is very much like Idunn in Snorri's Edda.
Donner (Thor in Norse mythology) is the god of thunder, lightning, and storms. A red-haired, red-bearded, Norse equivalent of Hercules, he is combative, ready to wield his hammer and pick a fight on any pretext. Thor lives on in the English word for Thursday, (Donnerstag/Donner's Day in German). His weapon of choice is his hammer, Mjöllnir, with which he bashes giants and levels mountains. He is the son of Wotan/Odin in the sources, but in Rheingold, Wagner makes him Wotan's brother-in-law, the brother of Freia and Fricka.
Froh (Frey in Norse) is the brother of Freia and Fricka, protector of the fields, and god of springtime, fertility, good weather, and the sun and rain. In the final scene of Rheingold, he is associated with the rainbow that leads over to Valhalla.
The Giants, Fasolt and Fafner build Valhalla for Wotan. Fasolt has a bit of a crush on Freia. The brothers quarrel over the Ring, and Fafner kills Fasolt. He reappears in Siegfried in the form of a dragon, obsessively guarding his treasure. The giants are based on Fáfnir and Reginn from the Andvari tale in Snorri's Edda.
Erda is the ancient goddess of the earth, who knows everything that was, is, or will be. She predicts the destruction of the gods and urges Wotan to give up the ring. After Das Rheingold ends, Wotan will seek her out to learn more, and she will give birth to his daughter Brünnhilde (and possibly the other eight Valkyries).
Libretto of the Opera From the Chandos Opera in English series: the CD booklet of the English National Opera recording, using the well-regarded translation by Andrew Porter (begins on p.134)
Libretto of the Opera in German and English
Piano/Vocal Score of the Opera: in German and English
Fun with The Ring
Comic Strip Synopsis of the four Ring Cycle operas.
Wabbitology: An anjoyable exploration of the classic cartoon What's Opera Doc?. Includes a very funny synopsis, lots of stills from the film, and some analysis of the long-running Elmer Fudd vs Bugs Bunny feud.
Watch What's Opera Doc?
Historic Commentary and Early Reviews
The Guardian: The depths of the noble Rhine. The Bayreuth festival's first opening night, reported in the Guardian, August 17, 1876.
The New York Times Review of Das Rheingold at Bayreuth, August 1876
Lettres de Bayreuth: L'Anneau du Nibelung Charles Henri Tardieu wrote this series of letters about the August 1876 première of the Ring Cycle. They were published as articles in L'Indépendance belge. The letters are in French, and make for fascinating reading. A particularly poetic section describes the dramatic effect of the darkness in the theatre – an innovation of Wagner's (English translation provided):
Aussitôt le gaz s'éteint presque complètement. Nous voilà plongés non-seulement dans le silence, mais encore dans l'obscurité...Ces ténèbres subites nous élèvent encore d'un degré au-dessus de la vie ordinaire, et nous installent dans les régions de l'art désintéressé. L'oeuvre pour l'oeuvre, rien que l'oeuvre. La salle n'existe plus; nos voisins, nos voisines même ne comptent pas... L'empereur d'Allemagne lui-même est oublié. ... le théâtre de Bayreuth ... est l'affirmation absolue de l'oeuvre; mieux que cela, le triomphe de l'illusion; la réalisation, l'incarnation du rêve dramatique. Nous sommes prêts à tout, même au surnaturel, même à l'impossible.
Immediately, the gas lights are almost completely extinguished. We find ourselves plunged not only into silence, but into darkness. The sudden darkness raises us out of ordinary life and into the domain of pure art. The room no longer exists; our neighbors no longer matter ... even the Emperor of Germany is forgotten ... The theatre of Bayreuth... is the absolute affirmation of the work; better than that, the triumph of illusion; the realization, the incarnation of the dramatic dream. We are ready for anything, even the supernatural, even the impossible.
Sydney Morning Herald : Review of the 1876 Ring Cycle
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky on the 1876 opening: English translation of a series of articles written by Tchaikovsky for the Moscow journal Russian Register, which were published in five issues between May and August of 1876. He notes that Bayreuth was completely inundated with visitors for the Festival, resulting in a desperate, unending search for beer and food!
Each slice of bread, each mug of beer has to be taken by force, by means of incredible exertions and tricks, all requiring a patience of steel ...For the whole duration of the first series of performances of Wagner's tetralogy, the predominating interest for everyone turned exclusively upon food ... People talked much more about beefsteaks, cutlets, and fried potatoes than about Wagner's music.
However, Tchaikovsky also discusses the operas in some detail, and, while his reactions are mixed, he is clearly impressed with the greatness of Wagner's achievement.
... anyone who believes in art as a civilizing force, anyone who is devoted to art irrespective of any utilitarian purposes it may serve, must experience a most agreeable feeling in Bayreuth at the sight of this tremendous artistic enterprise which has ...acquired epoch-making significance in the history of art...nobody can deny the greatness of the task [Wagner] has carried out or the strength of his spirit, which impelled him to ... realize one of the most tremendous artistic projects ever conceived by the human mind.
The Perfect Wagnerite: George Bernard Shaw is at his witty, opinionated, curmudgeonly best in this 1898 commentary on the Ring Cycle. Enjoy one of the most entertaining synopses of the Ring, told from Shaw's inimitable socialist perspective.
Shaw opens with what he calls Preliminary Encouragements.
The Ring, with all its gods and giants and dwarfs, its water-maidens and Valkyries, its wishing-cap, magic ring, enchanted sword, and miraculous treasure, is a drama of today, and not of a remote and fabulous antiquity... Everybody, too, can enjoy the love music, the hammer and anvil music, the clumping of the giants, the tune of the young woodsman's horn, the trilling of the bird, the dragon music and nightmare music and thunder and lightning music, the profusion of simple melody, the sensuous charm of the orchestration: in short, the vast extent of common ground between The Ring and the ordinary music we use for play and pleasure...
It is generally understood, however, that there is an inner ring of superior persons to whom the whole work has a most urgent and searching philosophic and social significance. I profess to be such a superior person; and I write this pamphlet for the assistance of those who wish to be introduced to the work on equal terms with that inner circle of adepts.
Germanic Mythology: Wander through this treasure trove of translations, including the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, the Poetic or Elder Edda, and facsimiles of a number of ancient manuscripts.
Above: Title page of a manuscript of the Prose Edda (1666), showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript ÍB 299 4to, now in the care of the Icelandic National Library
The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur . One of the major sources for The Ring is the Prose Edda, written by a fat, ale-swilling 13th century Icelandic chieftain with the evocative name Snorri Sturluson.Wagner did wonders with this mythology and made it uniquely his own by masterfully reweaving the old myths, inventing and adapting, creating something wholly new that feels ancient. For Das Rheingold, Wagner wove together three separate stories from Snorri.
The Otter's Ransom and Andvari's curse: Loki and Odin kill an otter that turns out to be the son of a king. To escape with their lives, they must cover the otter's skin inside and out with gold. Odin sends Loki to the Land of the Black Elves where he captures a dwarf named Andvari and extorts all his gold, along with a magic ring that multiplies wealth. The dwarf curses the ring. Loki and Odin cover the otter with gold, but one hair of its snout is still visible. Odin places the ring on the snout. The otter's brothers, Fáfnir and Reginn, kill their father for the gold; then Fáfnir drives his brother away, turns into a serpent, and lies down on the gold. Fáfnir is eventually killed by Sigurd (Siegfried).
The Builder's Tale: Loki brokers a deal with a giant, who will build a magnificent stronghold for the gods by the first day of summer, helped only by his horse – surely an impossible task. His payment is to be the goddess Freyja, the sun, and the moon. But the horse proves very strong, and the builder makes astounding progress. The gods threaten Loki with a horrible death if he doesn't prevent the giant from fulfilling his task. Loki shape-shifts into a mare which distracts the stallion, and the two horses race around all night. The enraged builder cannot finish the job, and Thor kills him with his hammer. Sometime later, Loki gives birth to a foal, the magnificent eight-legged Sleipnir, who became Odin's steed, "the best of all horses".
The Apples of Idunn: Idunn, like Freia, is the keeper of the apples of immortality. When Loki is seized by the giant Thjazi, in the form an eagle, Loki must promise Idunn in exchange for his freedom. He lures Idunn to a wood where Thjazi flies off with her. The gods become hoary and old and threaten to kill Loki if he does not bring her back. Wearing the plumage of a hawk, Loki flies to the giant's home, turns Idunn into a nut, and flies back with her, pursued by Thjazi. The other gods light a fire which burns the giant's feathers, and they kill him.
Snorri tells many more stories, but you can find the stories above in these sections of the Edda:
GYLFAGINNING XLII: The Builder's Tale
SKÁLDSKAPARMAL I: Theft of the Apples of Idunn
SKÁLDSKAPARMAL XXXIX: The Otter's Ransom and the tale of Andvari the Dwarf
Norse Digital Images. A beautiful collection of images from old Norse manuscripts, with explanations of each scene and story and links to the original online manuscripts. The collection is a project called MyNDIR, (My Norse Digital Image Repository), created by Trish Baer as part of her Interdisciplinary PhD in English and History in Art at the University of Victoria. You can browse the repository by clicking on any thumbnail in the scrollable banner of cropped images, or by clicking on any letter in the alphabet menu at the top of the page.
1760 Icelandic manuscript by Ólafur Brynjúlfsson, known as NKS 1867 4to. This manuscript contains material from both Snorri's Edda, (also known as the Prose Edda and the Younger Edda) and from the Elder Edda (also known as the Poetic Edda), as well as wonderful illustrations from Norse mythology. Danish Royal Library, Copenhagen.
TAKE THE OPERA BUS: to the Sunday Matinée. Bus runs from the Saanich Peninsula and Up-Island.