Prelude to an Epic: Wagner's 'Das Rheingold'
The single act of Das Rheingold begins in the depths of the Rhine river. The entire Ring cycle finishes -- four operas and more than 15 hours later -- on the banks of the same river. As the orchestral prelude ends, the three Rhinemaidens are playing among the rocks of the riverbed. Alberich appears from below. He's one of the Nibelungs, a race of dwarves. Alberich is smitten by the Rhinemaidens, and tries to join in their play, but they find him repulsive. They lead him on, tease him, and then reject him, leaving him frustrated and angry.
Then he sees a strange light in the water. It's a cache of gold -- the precious Rheingold. The maidens tell Alberich that this gold has magic powers. Anyone who owns it, and can forge a ring from it, will rule the world. But there's a catch. To possess the gold, and forge the ring, one must first renounce love. The Rhinemaidens feel safe telling Alberich this. After all, he's obviously in love with them, and who could renounce that? But the dwarf is so angry at their teasing that he decides to pay them back. He renounces love, steals the gold, and escapes back into the depths. The Rhinemaidens break into a desperate song, with Alberich laughing in the background.
As the scene changes, we rise from the river's depths, from water into clouds, and then to a sunny place at the top of a mountain. Wotan, the chief of the gods, is sleeping. His wife, Fricka, wakes him up, and Wotan admires a castle standing on a peak across the Rhine valley. The castle is Valhalla, the gods' new home, built for them by two giants -- Fafner and Fasolt. In exchange, Wotan has told the giants they can have Freia, Fricka's sister, who is also the Goddess of Youth and Beauty. Now, the giants come to claim their reward.
But Wotan never really intended to give Freia to the giants. Instead, his plan is to enlist Loge, the crafty God of Fire, to find a way out of the deal. Loge figures the only solution is to offer the Giants something even more valuable than Freia. Loge has learned about Alberich's theft of the Rheingold, with its powerful magic. The giants agree that if Wotan can somehow get the gold from Alberich, they'll take that instead of Freia. But for now, they'll keep her as ransom, and drag her away.
With Freia gone, even temporarily, the gods have a problem. Without the apples of youth that Freia provides, the gods will grow weak and may even die, and that process has already begun. Again, they turn to Loge, hoping he can find a way out of their current mess.
Though Loge is called the God of Fire, he's actually half human -- and when it comes to the real, full-blooded gods, he holds a bit of a grudge. So Loge doesn't hesitate to take Wotan on the dangerous trip that sets the ultimate downfall of the gods in motion.
Loge and Wotan travel through a cleft in the mountains and down into the underworld, where the Nibelungs live, enslaved by Alberich. Alberich has already forged the powerful ring from the Rheingold, and he's also made the Tarnhelm, a magic helmet that enables him to change shape. But when Alberich shows off this power by turning himself into a toad, Wotan catches him and takes the Tarnhelm.
Alberich is dragged off to the mountaintop. In exchange for his freedom he orders the Nibelungs to bring up the Rheingold. He wants to keep the ring, and the Tarnhelm. When Wotan refuses him, Alberich turns the ring over -- but he also puts a deadly curse on anyone who possesses it.
After Wotan and Loge send Alberich packing, the two giants return, bringing Freia with them. They'll give her back, they say, but only for a stack of gold big enough to completely hide her from view. All the gold, including the Tarnhelm -- everything but the ring -- is stacked up in front of Freia. But Fafner can still see the goddess's eyes through a slit in the pile, and he orders Wotan to give up the ring, as well. Wotan hesitates, but when the earth goddess Erda warns Wotan that he'd better comply, the giants get the fateful ring.
Almost immediately, Alberich's curse goes into action. The giants start to quarrel over the gold, and the stunned gods watch as Fafner bludgeons Fasolt to death and drags the body off, along with his newly won treasure.
Wotan celebrates Freia's return by leading the gods across a shimmering rainbow bridge to their new home, Valhalla. But below, in the river, the Rhinemaidens lament the loss of their precious gold.