Wagner: Das Rheingold

DAS RHEINGOLD

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.


 

Cast and Creative Team


Gods and Goddesses
Nibelungs
Giants
Rhinemaidens

With the Victoria Symphony


 

Das Rheingold

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

Synopsis


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, hoping to seduce one of the three (he isn't particular which one). They flirt cruelly with him, each in turn leading him on, flattering him, then insulting him and eluding his grasp until he is left furious and exhausted.

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 the lustful Alberich is the last creature on earth who would give up a chance at love. But by now Alberich 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 wails of the Rhinemaidens are met only by Alberich's harsh, mocking laughter as he disappears into darkness.

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 Friea'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 Friea, 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, haranguing them to pile up a heap of gold 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, and the gods are youthful and strong again now that she is with them. 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 – for he senses the gods are rushing toward their downfall, and he is tempted to turn himself back into fire and destroy them now. 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.

Maureen Woodall


 

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