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Das Rheingold

(The Rheingold)

Libretto: by Richard Wagner

Premiere: Munich,
September 22, 1869

A one-act opera, first in the tetralogy of "The Ring of the Nibelungen," by Richard Wagner. "Das Rheingold" serves as a Prologue and the philosophic/mythical background for three additional operas: "Die Walküre," "Siegfried," and " Götterdämmerung."

Act I

Scene 1

The curtain rises over the Rhine River, in which the Rhinemaidens, sister creatures to mermaids of the sea, gradually gather to share their girlish games and songs. Their lighthearted playfulness belies the solemn nature of their primary responsibility: that of guarding the Rhine gold.

The Maidens' joyous singing soon attracts the attention of a hideous gnome, Alberich, whom they tease and tantalize, and generally make sport of until he reacts in angered frustration.

A shaft of light from the Heavens suddenly illuminates the Rhine treasure, the priceless hoard of gold they've been instructed to oversee. In their own gossipy fashion, the Maidens explain to Alberich the curse faced by any potential thieves. The gold may be forged into a Ring which will allow its owner to rule the World, however, its possessor must forswear love forever and live in emotional desolation.

After his humiliating experience with the Rhinemaidens, Alberich is convinced he has no need of feminine affection -- now or ever. He curses love, plunges into the Rhine, wrenches the treasure from its hiding place, and disappears as the terrified Maidens helplessly attempt to detain him. Once the gold disappears, all grows dark.

Scene 2

At dawn, in the rising mist of an idyllic mountainside, Wotan sleeps with his wife, Fricka. She awakens to exclaim about the appearance of an impressive edifice across the valley. This imposing palace, the new home of the gods at Valhalla, should be a reason for rejoicing, but instead becomes the subjects of a serious marital quarrel. The builders, the giants Fafner and Fasolt, have made a bargain with Wotan to exchange their services for Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty and younger sister to Fricka. Fricka argues that Wotan has paid too much and continues with recriminations about his weaknesses and philandering in general.

Freia flees onto the hillside, pursued by the giants who want their payment on the spot. Wotan explains that he never intended to honor the bargain; that the god of Fire, Loge, has been searching the world for a suitable alternative to offer the giants. Nonetheless, Fafner and Fasolt arrive demanding their wages. If Wotan reneges, they point out, the world will fall into ruin. Freia calls out to Donner, god of thunders and Froh, god of fruitfulness, for deliverance. They appear at the giants attempt to abduct the goddess and Donner valiantly champions her cause.

In the midst of this hostile gathering, Loge appears, and announces he has no substitute payment to offer on Freia's behalf. But he has other compelling news. Alberich has stolen the Rhine gold and is forging a Ring which will place him in absolute control. Everyone is threatened, even the gods themselves. The Rhinemaidens have asked for Wotan's help in restoring the treasure to them. As Fricka ruminates about the possibilities of obtaining such a Ring and using it to assure her husband's faithfulness, the giants hold a conference in which they determine to take Freia with them, pending Wotan's ability to steal the gold and substitute that for the goddess. They'll give him until nightfall they conclude, and depart, dragging the terrified and screaming Freia.

Once the goddess of youth and beauty has disappeared the gods begin to grow pale and lose their vitality. Their eternal youth will desert them now, Loge explains. A plan is hastily developed to invade Alberich's dwelling at Nibelheim and steal the gold to ensure Freia's return. Loge and Wotan depart down the hillside.

Scene 3

Alberich has established a horrifying dictatorship among the Nibelung dwarfs who have become his slaves, mining ceaselessly for gold to make him ever more wealthy and powerful. His brother, the smithy Mime, has created a cap of gold, a Tarnhelm, which will make Alberich invisible. He dons the Tarnhelm and disappears from view, continually taunting Mime with threats and insults. Mime informs new arrivals, Loge and Wotan, of the misery which now rules in Nibelheim. Alberich, once again visible, suddenly returns, driving frightened dwarfs before him. He chases them and Mime away and turns to his two guests to assure them of his impending omnipotence, even over the fate of gods. The crafty Loge formulates a way to use Alberich's vanity to defeat him. He demands to see a demonstration of the Tarnhelm's power. Obligingly, Alberich turns into a serpent, then back to his own form.

Could he become, perhaps, a toad?, Mime inquires. Alberich proudly complies and the two gods seize the reptile and the Tarnhelm. As Alberich reappears in his own form they bind his arms and drag him away.

Scene 4

Under threat of death, Alberich commands that the Nibelungs turn over all the gold to Wotan and Loge. Wotan also twists the Ring from Alberich's hand and slides it onto his own finger. In retaliation, the dwarf places his own terrifying curse upon the Ring's wearer: a promise of misery, death, and slavery, until such time as it is returned to Alberich's keeping. The ominous curse foretells a bitter legacy which will be played out over the course of the operatic tetralogy.

The giants return now with Freia as night falls. Loge and Wotan begin stacking the gold which will redeem Freia's captivity, while Fasolt and Fafner negotiate for enough treasure to obscure her from view. Wotan agrees, however, piling up the entire treasure, a small crevice remains through which the giants say they can still see Freia's eyes. They insist upon having the Ring from Wotan's finger as well. He adamantly refuses, until Fricka rises from the ground and admonishes him to relinquish the Ring and Alberich's curse along with it.

Wotan tosses the Ring into the bargain. In the midst of dividing the spoils, a fight ensues between the giant-brothers. Fafner kills Fasolt with a single blow and leaves, dragging the treasure and the corpse of his brother. The curse of the Ring has already materialized.

To the accompaniment of thunder and lightning fireworks produced by Donner, the gods enter their palace at Valhalla. However, the potential joy and sense of security of the occasion has been irreparably tarnished. Loge chooses not to join his relatives but to return to the natural world in his basic form: that of fire. From the darkness of the Rhine waters emanates the mournful cry of the Rhinemaidens, pleading for the return of their golden treasure.

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