It all begins with theft.
Down below, the beautiful Rhinemaidens seduce ugly dwarf Alberich and then reject him with harsh ridicule. Alberich is a Nibelung, a race of dwarves who live below ground. Enraged and humiliated by the Rhinemaidens, he steals what they love most, the magic gold they guard which lights their darkness and fills them with delight.
But the Rhinemaiden’s gold has another power. The man who can forge it into a ring gains power over all the world. In order to forge such a ring, he must first renounce love. The Rhinemaidens laugh that no man would willingly forego love. Furious and hate-filled, Alberich renounces love in order to enslave the world and everything in it. He relishes his triumph. He will reap the world’s wealth for himself and sow only pain and humiliation for everyone else. Theft transforms him from the sorriest of losers into a tyrant without limits.
Up above, Wotan awakes and sees his new castle gleaming in the dawn, as grand as his ambition. To pay for it, Wotan promised Freia, the goddess of youth, to the giants Fasolt and Fafner for building it. As the giants approach, Wotan’s wife Fricka is frantic. The giants have come for her sister Freia. Even worse, only Freia can grow the golden apples that grant the gods eternal youth. Without Freia they will wither and grow old.
The deal, engraved on Wotan’s spear, must be repudiated or renegotiated. Wotan has to find something the giants want more than Freia.
Loge, a demigod, appears with the news that Alberich has stolen the Rheingold and forged a magic ring. He immediately enslaved the Nibelungs in the mines and amassed a staggering hoard of gold.
The gods wonder if the giants will accept the Nibelung’s hoard as payment, instead of Freia. The giants provisionally agree pending inspection of the hoard. When they leave they take Freia as collateral. The instant she leaves the sky darkens, the gods turn grey, their youth fades. Wotan has little time to steal Alberich’s gold.
Wotan and Loge descend into lightless Nibelheim. The power-drunk Alberich is no match for Loge, the wily Loge. Wotan and Loge steal Alberich’s freedom, his gold, and his ring.
Reduced to toxic rubble by the disaster he brought upon himself, Alberich warns Wotan: “I sinned only against myself, but you, immortal god, sin against all that was, is, and shall be, if you steal my ring.”
Wotan has no choice. He can’t allow Alberich to wield the power of the ring, nor can he lose Freia and her gift of eternal youth. Wotan tears the ring from Alberich’s finger.
Unable to escape the ruin he has brought upon himself, Alberich curses the ring: Let it bring sorrow and ruin to all who possess it until it returns to him. Let those who wear it be terrified by others’ envy. Slaves to the ring, they will long to die. “Keep it now and guard it well,” Alberich tells Wotan. “You cannot escape my curse.”
“Did you heed his fond farewell?” Loge asks his boss before reminding him that Alberich stole the gold from the Rhine maidens to whom it must return to set things right again.
In the morning the giants return to Valhalla. At Freia’s approach the pall upon the air begins to dissipate; color drains back into the gods’ faces as their youth returns. The giants agree to accept Alberich’s hoard as ransom for Freia on condition that it be piled up in front of her until they can no longer see her. The angry gods pile gold around Freia until it runs out, complaining of the indignity.
“I can still see her hair,” the giant Fafner objects. “What’s that in your hand?”
Loge reluctantly tosses Alberich’s coveted magic helmet on the pile.
“I can still see the gleam of her eye,” Fasolt objects.
“Cover it,” Fafner orders, eying the ring on Wotan’s finger. “That will hide the gleam in her eye.”
Wotan refuses to toss the ring onto the hoard. Loge reminds the giants that it must be returned to the Rhine maidens.
“No,” Wotan says. “I won it. It’s mine.”
The giants stand back as the gods plead with Wotan to give up the ring. Without Freia they will grow old and weak. Wotan, defiant, refuses. “I will surrender this ring to no one.”
Sudden darkness falls. A figure rises from a cleft in the earth, shrouded in a cloud of blue light.
“Yield the ring, Wotan,” she warns, “flee the ring’s curse.”
Wotan asks who she is? She says “I am the endless, all-wise one.” She foretells the ruin of the gods if Wotan refuses to give up the ring. Wotan, awe-struck, asks her to tell him more but she refuses. “I warned you and that’s enough. Brood in care and fear.”
Stunned, Wotan throws the ring on the pile. The giants turn Freia loose and immediately fight over the hoard. Fafner murders Fasolt and drags the hoard away, ring and all.
“The curse’s terrible power,” Wotan admits. The ring had nearly landed on his finger. As the gods prepare to cross the rainbow bridge to their splendid new castle they hear the Rhinemaidens in the valley below, lamenting the loss of their precious light. Loge shouts to them, “stop your wailing. Your gleaming gold has been eclipsed; bask in the newfound splendor of the gods, now and forever.”
Das Rheingold ends with the gods’ entry into Valhalla, Freia in hand, their immortality regained, their fortress proud and strong. Far below, the Rhinemaidens keep mournful vigil, lamenting their loss. The music hints at another narrative, how the theft of the gold, the broken deals, the insatiable greed, and the lust for power have reached critical mass, bursting the bonds holding everything together. At the far end of the rainbow bridge everything dissolves into the primeval soup of the nothing before everything was and time starts all over again.
Entrance of the gods into Valhalla