The action of “Das Rheingold” or “The Rhinegold” begins in the depths of the Rhine, the scene showing the rock caverns of the river and the entire stage seeming to be filled with water.
Wotan, Donner, gods. Froh, Loki, Fafner, giants. Fasolt, Alberich, a Nibelung. Mimi, a Nibelung. Fricka, Freya, – goddesses. Erda, Wellgunde, Woglinde, nymphs of the Rhine. Flosshilda, Nibelungs.
Upon a peak lifting its head from the river’s bed gleams the Rhinegold, while about it gracefully swim its guardians, the three beautiful Rhine maidens, Wellgunde, Woglinde and Flosshilda, daughters of the god of the river. Soon there appears an unprepossessing spectator of their joyous play, Alberich, the Prince of the Nibelungs, a race of dwarfs sprung ” from the womb of night and death ” who have their dwelling in the caves of the earth. He feasts with greedy eyes upon the charms of the nymphs and, growing bold, tries to pursue them through the water. Thoroughly enjoying the sport, they mock him with smiles and blandishment but always evade the clasp of their misshapen admirer just as he thinks to catch one of them. At last, when impotent with rage from his fruitless clambering over the slimy rocks of the river bed, his attention suddenly is diverted by an illumination of the waters from the glow of the Rhinegold, now lighted by the rays of the rising sun. The maidens hail their golden treasure with rapturous delight, singing as they swim about it:
Rhinegold; Glittering joy! Thou laughest in radiance rare!
Incautiously, they reveal the magic property of the gold, which their father has warned them a dwarf such as this will seek to wrest from their keeping. They tell Alberich that whoever shall shape a ring from the Rhine-gold shall gain the kingdom of the whole world and shall possess measureless might. But to this dazzling information they add the condition that he who would gain this puissance must renounce forever the joys of love. Alberich after a moment’s consideration of the price, clambers up the peak, exclaims
Hear me, ye floods! Love I renounce forever
and, wrenching the gold from the pinnacle of rock, vanishes with it and its light to the underworld, while the Rhine maidens lament their loss in the darkness.
The gloom gradually is dissipated and instead of the river bed is seen a valley through which the Rhine is flowing. The stream is overlooked by a grassy plateau, whereon lie sleeping Wotan, king of the gods, and his consort Fricka. As they awake they turn to gaze at the stately walls of the new palace, Walhalla, which rises on a height on the opposite bank and which has been built by the giants Fafner and Fasolt to insure for Wotan the sovereignty of the world. Fricka’s pride in its splendor is soon lost, however, for she remembers the fee the giants have exacted for their labor, nothing less than the beautiful goddess Freya, keeper of the golden apples, from which sustenance the gods derive their youth and strength. Upbraided by his wife for rashly having promised such a fee, Wotan expresses a hope that with the aid of Loki, the god of fire, who, like that flickering treacherous element, is a trickster, he may evade a payment which will deprive the world of its beauty, light, and sweetness. As they speak, the terror-stricken Freya rushes in, pursued by the giants. She implores Wotan to save her and summons to her protection her brothers, Donner and Froh, the gods of thunder and sunshine. But even their presence does not abash the giants, who are determined to obtain their reward.
The tense situation is relieved by the arrival of Loki, whose delay has been caused by his having wandered far throughout the world in his search for something sufficiently alluring to take the place of Freya. He has learned of nothing save the enchanted gold whose theft the Rhine daughters have reported to him. The giants listen eagerly to the tale of Alberich’s possession and of the marvelous power he is able to exert through it, not only over his own race but over all the earth. They consent to accept this gold instead of Freya, if before nightfall Wotan and Loki can obtain it for them. They depart but carry with them the shrieking goddess as an hostage. The absence of the guardian of the sacred apples makes the gods grow visibly old and gray and Wotan, observing the appalling change in everyone about him, resolves to gain possession of the gold, be the price what it may.
Wotan and Loki start for the underworld. The scene gradually changes and they soon are discovered descending into the domain of the Nibelungs, ruled by Alberich.
Mimi, Alberich’s slave-brother, has fashioned for him the ring and it has not disappointed in its endowment. With all vestiges of love now banished from his heart, he thinks only of oppressing his people and piling up gold for himself. Mimi has been forced also to make from the Rhinegold a Tarnhelm or helmet, which is to give either invisibility or any form desired to the wearer. This too has proven a success and, to thank the forger for his work, Alberich becomes invisible and lashes him with a whip. The gods find Mimi writhing in agony, and craftily draw from him the story of the ring. As they speak, the dwarf-ruler appears, driving before him hosts of serfs, who bear loads of gold plate and jewelry. The magic of the ring gives him insight into the real object of the visit of Wotan and Loki but he feels so secure in his new power that he defies even the gods. Finally, he is beguiled by Loki into displaying the qualities of the Tarnhelm and changes himself first into a huge serpent and then into a toad. While under the second trans-formation, Wotan places his foot upon him, Loki seizes the helmet and together they convey him, restored to human form, to the upper air. Having dragged their prisoner to the mountain top, Wotan commands him to summon his dwarfs and have them fetch the treasure from Nibelheim. Alberich reluctantly obeys but is furious to find himself compelled to add the Tarnhelm to the treasure that his serfs pile up. He hopes to keep the ring, however, but even this is demanded and forced to yield it up, he in his rage hurls with it a dreadful accompanying curse, declaring that destruction ever shall come to the one who wears it.
Alberich is released and Fricka, Donner and Froh appear, followed closely by Fasolt and Fafner and the weeping Freya. The giants declare that only gold enough entirely to screen the goddess can buy her back. When all the horde is piled about her and even the magic helmet has been added they discover still a chink through which can be caught a glimpse of Freya’s golden hair and Wotan is forced to sacrifice the ring. This he refuses to do until Erda, the earth goddess and the mother of the fates, rises from the ground to tell him that to keep it means ruin.
Three daughters, norns of fate, Were born to me, ere the world began; By these was I called to counsel thee; That direst danger, day of gloom, Dawns for all the gods; Hence I warn thee, beware the ring!
The released Freya embraces her kin, who now are dowered once more with the rose of youth. The inevitable evil of the ring begins to exert its power, however. The giants quarrel over the division of the gold and Fafner slays his brother and departs, carrying the whole treasure. As Wotan broods over the baleful curse which has entered the world, heavy haze and mist settle over the river and castle. Thor, the god of thunder, compels the storm elements to obey him and, when lightning and thunder-peals have cleared the air, a shimmering rain-bow is seen bridging the space between the valley and Walhalla. Wotan giving his hand to Fricka, invites the gods and goddesses to follow him to their new home. As they advance, a celestial procession across the shining bridge, the lament of the Rhine daughters over the stolen gold rises to their ears from far below. Wotan questions Loki as to what means this sound and, on being told, commands that it cease. Loki mockingly calls to the Rhine maidens, bidding them forget the loss of their shining gold and sun themselves in the splendor of the gods. The lament continues as the gods enter Walhalla.
” The Rhinegold ” is the prologue to the great Nibelungen trilogy and is the key to all which follows. Many of the characters which figure in the later action are introduced. In it, the sin of the king of the gods, i. e., the breaking of the contract with the giants and his coveting and securing by force the ring, which is the symbol of earthly power, is committed. The consequences of this sin make up the action of the ensuing dramas. Wotan, not Siegfried, is the true hero of the trilogy and the real plot is concerned with his efforts to escape the retribution which inevitably must follow wrong-doing. It must be remembered that the gods of Teutonic mythology are not immortal. Streatfield says, ” Behind Walhalla towers the gigantic figure of Fate, whose reign is eternal. The gods rule for a limited time, subject to its decrees. This ever-present idea of inexorable doom is the guiding idea of Wagner’s great tragedy. Against the inevitable the gods plot and scheme in vain.”
As yet no human interest has been engendered, how-ever, for the world to which we are introduced is one of mystery, dealing with naught save gods, giants, dwarfs and nixies.