Wotan, ruler of the gods, visited the World Ash Tree, whose roots were fed by the spring of eternal knowledge and whose branches held together the universe: the upper realms of the gods; Riesenheim, home of the giants; the earth, with the Rhine and his daughters; and Nibelheim, a subterranean realm inhabited by the Nibelungs. Wotan drank from the spring, forfeiting an eye in return for wisdom. From the tree he tore a branch and shaped it into a spear. Weakened by the wound, the tree eventually withers and the waters of the spring dwindle and fail. On the shaft of his spear Wotan recorded the binding treaties by which he became ruler of the world.
In the depths of the Rhine, the three Rhinemaidens guard the Rhinegold, a treasure of immeasurable value. The Nibelung dwarf Alberich is dazzled first by the maidens and then by their treasure. Wellgunde reveals that whoever can forge the gold into a ring will gain mastery over the world. The required magic can be attained only by renouncing love. Alberich curses love vehemently and steals the gold.
Wotan, lord of the gods, dreams of eternal power and a fortress for the gods. He is reproached by his wife Fricka: he has promised to give Freia, keeper of the golden apples of eternal youth, to the giant brothers Fasolt and Fafner in return for their building the fortress. The giants demand their reward with Fafner proposing to abduct Freia by force. Loge, the god of fire, suggests an alternative payment: the mighty ring Alberich has forged from the Rhinegold. The giants agree to take Freia away as a provisional hostage until evening, and then hand her over in exchange for the gold. Wotan and Loge leave for the Nibelungs’ underground home, Nibelheim, to take possession of the gold.
Here they meet Alberich’s brother Mime, who has forged the Tarnhelm, a magic helmet that transforms its wearer into any shape. Alberich takes the helmet by force and uses his power to enslave the Nibelungs. Alberich appears and mocks the gods and dons the Tarnhelm to turn himself into a giant serpent, then into a toad, which the gods capture. Dragged to the surface, the dwarf is forced to summon the Nibelungs to heap up the gold. Wotan wrests the ring from his finger. Shattered, Alberich curses the ring: no one who possesses the ring will escape death.
The giants return and agree to accept the gold but Wotan refuses to part with the ring. Erda, goddess of the earth, appears and warns him that possession of it will bring about the end of the gods. Wotan reluctantly gives the ring to the giants and Freia is freed. The gods witness the first effects of the cursed ring as it claims its first victim — the killing of Fasolt by Fafner in the ensuing struggle over the treasure. The voices of the Rhinemaidens are heard, lamenting the loss of their gold as the gods walk toward their new home, Valhalla.
As a storm rages, Siegmund the Wälsung, exhausted from pursuit by enemies in the forest, stumbles into a house for shelter. Sieglinde finds the stranger lying by the hearth, and the two feel an immediate attraction. But they are soon interrupted by Sieglinde’s husband, Hunding, who asks the stranger who he is. Calling himself ‘Woe-full’, Siegmund tells of a life filled with sorrow, only to learn that Hunding is a kinsman of his foes. Hunding challenges the stranger to combat the next day. Left alone, Siegmund calls on his father, Wälse, for the sword he once promised him. Sieglinde reappears, having given Hunding a sleeping potion. She tells of her wedding, at which a one-eyed stranger thrust into a tree a sword that thereafter resisted every effort to pull it out. Sieglinde confesses her unhappiness to Siegmund, whereupon he ardently embraces her and vows to free her from her forced marriage to Hunding. Siegmund compares their feeling to the marriage of love and spring. Sieglinde asks if his father was really ‘Wolf’, as he said earlier. When Siegmund gives his father’s name as Wälse instead, Sieglinde knows for certain that he is the Wälsung for whom the sword is intended. She tells him that he is her twin brother and Siegmund draws the sword from the tree.
Wotan instructs his daughter Brünnhilde to protect Siegmund in the impending fight with Hunding. Brünnhilde warns Wotan that his wife, Fricka, the guardian of marriage, is approaching. Fricka arrives demanding the punishment of Siegmund and Sieglinde, who have committed adultery and incest. She knows that Wotan, disguised as the mortal man Wälse, fathered Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wotan protests that he requires a free hero (i.e. one not ruled by him) to aid his plans, but Fricka retorts that Siegmund is not a free hero. He is a pawn in a game invented by Wotan, who is himself severely compromised by his promiscuity. Backed into a corner, Wotan agrees to forbid Brünnhilde to let Siegmund win the battle against Hunding, ensuring the death of his beloved child Siegmund.
Siegmund and Sieglinde enter. Sieglinde faints in guilt and exhaustion. Brünnhilde approaches Siegmund and tells him of his impending death. Siegmund refuses to follow Brünnhilde to Valhalla when she tells him Sieglinde cannot accompany him there. He draws his sword and threatens to kill both Sieglinde and himself. Impressed by his passionate love, Brünnhilde relents and agrees to grant victory to Siegmund instead of Hunding.
Hunding arrives and attacks Siegmund. Brünnhilde urges Siegmund to trust in his sword ‘Nothung’ but Wotan appears and shatters Nothung with his spear. While Siegmund is disarmed Hunding stabs him to death. Wotan looks down on Siegmund’s body, grieving, while Brünnhilde gathers up the fragments of Nothung and flees with Sieglinde. Wotan strikes Hunding dead with a dismissive gesture, and angrily sets out in pursuit of his disobedient daughter.
The Valkyries, preparing slain heroes destined for Valhalla, are surprised at the arrival of their sister, Brünnhilde, with Sieglinde. When they hear she is fleeing Wotan’s wrath, they refuse to protect her. Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde that she bears Siegmund’s child. She receives the pieces of the sword from Brünnhilde and thanks her rescuer as she rushes off into the forest to hide near Fafner’s cave, a place safe from Wotan. When the god appears, he sentences Brünnhilde to become a mortal woman. Brünnhilde pleads that in disobeying his orders she was really doing what he wished. Wotan will not relent: she must lie in sleep, vulnerable to the first man who finds her. But as his anger abates she asks the favour of being surrounded in sleep by a wall of fire that only the bravest hero can penetrate. Wotan kisses Brünnhilde’s eyes with sleep and mortality before summoning Loge, the spirit of fire, to encircle the rock.
In his forest cave Mime, hammering at an anvil, complains of his hard existence, forging swords for Siegfried to smash. If only he could reforge Nothung then Siegfried could kill the dragon Fafner and win for Mime the ring and Nibelung treasure, but he knows he is unequal to the task of mending the sword. Siegfried enters presenting a bear, sending the terrified Mime behind the anvil. When Siegfried is given his latest sword, he immediately breaks it and berates its maker who attempts to calm the boy by reminding him how he brought up the lonely orphan. Siegfried forces from Mime the story of Sieglinde and of how she also entrusted Mime with the fragments of a shattered sword. Siegfried immediately commands him to reforge this sword and storms off into the forest. Alone, Mime disconsolately wonders how he is to achieve this when Wotan, in the guise of the Wanderer, enters and asks for hospitality. In return, the Wanderer offers his head in pledge – to be redeemed by answering three questions of Mime’s. His answers to questions on the Nibelungs, giants and gods accurately describe the action of Das Rheingold. It is now Mime’s turn to answer three questions of Wotan’s choosing. These deal with Wotan’s children, the Wälsungs (Siegmund and Sieglinde) and Siegmund’s sword Nothung but Mime falters on the third question: who will reforge the sword? The Wanderer tells him it will be reforged by someone ‘who has never known fear’, and it is he to whom Mime’s head is now forfeit. The Wanderer leaves. Siegfried returns and is exasperated to find the sword not ready. Mime explains it can only be mended by one who ‘knows no fear’ and goes on to describe this strange sensation to Siegfried, promising to lead him to Fafner’s lair so as to learn it. Disgusted with Mime’s incompetence Siegfried proceeds to reforge the sword himself. Mime is convinced Siegfried will succeed in slaying Fafner and conceives the idea of offering him a drugged potion after the combat so that he may kill Siegfried and gain the ring. Delighted with his work, Siegfried triumphantly wields his new sword.
Alberich is keeping watch outside Fafner’s cave by night when the Wanderer enters. The Wanderer assures him he is only there to witness events not to influence them. He also tells of a young hero being brought to that spot by Mime, in order to win the treasure. They wake the dragon and Alberich offers to deflect the attack in return for the ring but Fafner refuses. The stage empties as dawn breaks and Mime enters with Siegfried, leaving him in front of the cave. Siegfried becomes aware of the murmurs of the forest and especially of a forest bird singing in a tree overhead. He tries to converse with the bird with a reed pipe and then with his horn, the latter bringing forth the dragon. After a brief combat Siegfried kills him. Withdrawing his sword from the body he burns himself with the dragon’s blood. In putting his fingers to his mouth, he immediately understands the voices of nature, especially that of the woodbird, who tells him of the ring, Tarnhelm and treasure. He enters the cave and the two brothers, Alberich and Mime, immediately quarrel over the expected spoils but slip away when Siegfried reappears. He can now also understand Mime’s real meaning behind his flattering words and comprehends his plot to kill him. Siegfried contemptuously strikes him dead and leaves in search of a bride, described by the woodbird, who lies asleep on a mountain top surrounded by fire.
At the foot of a mountain Wotan calls up Erda, the Earth goddess, to arise from her sleep. He is consumed by the thought that the twilight of the gods is at hand and is determined to appoint Siegfried his heir: he shall awaken Brünnhilde who shall redeem the world. Erda sinks into the earth as Siegfried enters, following the woodbird. He confronts ‘the Wanderer’. Pressing events to a climax, Wotan bars the way to Brünnhilde with his spear, which Siegfried shatters with his sword. Wotan disappears leaving Siegfried to continue his way. He plunges through the fire which dies down to reveal Brünnhilde asleep. Siegfried approaches and draws back in fear and wonder at this his first sight of a woman. He kisses Brünnhilde to wake her. Opening her eyes, Brünnhilde greets the sun and the hero who has freed her from her sleep. Their mutual happiness is clouded when Brünnhilde grieves for the loss of her godhead but she then gives herself to Siegfried and happily consigns the gods to oblivion in the all-consuming exultation of their love.
On the Valkyries’ rock, three Norns spin the rope of Fate, recalling Wotan’s days of power and predicting Valhalla’s imminent fall. When the rope breaks they descend in terror to their mother, Erda, goddess of the earth. At dawn Siegfried and his bride, Brünnhilde, emerge from their cave. Though fearful that she may lose the hero, she sends him forth to deeds of valour. To remind her of his love, Siegfried gives Brünnhilde the magic ring of the Nibelung. Rapturously they bid farewell as Siegfried sets out down the Rhine.
In their castle on the Rhine, Gunther, king of the Gibichungs, and his sister Gutrune, both unwed, ask counsel of their half brother, Hagen. Plotting to secure the ring, Hagen advises Gunther to consolidate his power by marrying Brünnhilde: by means of a magic potion Siegfried can be induced to forget his bride and win her for Gunther in return for Gutrune’s hand. The hero’s horn announces his approach. Gunther welcomes him, and Gutrune seals his fate by offering him the potion. Hailing Brünnhilde, he drinks and forgets all, quickly succumbing to Gutrune’s beauty and agreeing to bring Brünnhilde to Gunther. After solemnising their bargain with an oath, the men depart. Hagen, keeping watch, gloats on the success of his plotting. On the Valkyries’ rock, Brünnhilde greets her sister Waltraute, who says that Wotan has warned the gods their doom is sealed unless Brünnhilde yields the ring to the Rhinemaidens. When she refuses, Waltraute rides off in despair. Dusk falls as Siegfried reappears disguised, via the Tarnhelm, as Gunther; wresting the ring from the terrified Brünnhilde, he claims her as Gunther’s bride.
At night, before the Gibichung hall, the Nibelung Alberich urges the sleeping Hagen (his son) to swear he will regain the ring. Siegfried returns, as dawn breaks, with cheerful greetings for Hagen and Gutrune: he has won Brünnhilde for Gunther, who follows shortly. Hagen summons the vassals to welcome the king and his bride. When Gunther leads in Brünnhilde, she sees Siegfried and recoils; spying the ring on his finger, she decries his treachery and proclaims Siegfried her true husband. The hero, still under the potion’s spell, vows upon Hagen’s spear that he has never wronged her. Brünnhilde swears he lies, but Siegfried dismisses her charge and leaves with Gutrune. The dazed Brünnhilde, bent on revenge, reveals to Hagen the hero’s one vulnerable spot: a blade in the back will kill him. Taunted by Brünnhilde and lured by Hagen’s description of the ring’s power, Gunther joins the murder plot as Siegfried’s wedding procession passes by.
Near a mossy bank the three Rhinemaidens bewail their lost treasure. Soon Siegfried approaches, separated from his hunting party. The maidens plead for the ring, but he ignores both their entreaties and warnings. When the party arrives, Siegfried at Hagen’s urging describes his boyhood with Mime, his slaying of the dragon Fafner and finally — after Hagen gives him a potion to restore his memory – his wooing of Brünnhilde. Pretending indignation, Hagen plunges a spear into the hero’s back and stalks off. Hailing Brünnhilde with his last breath, Siegfried dies.
At the Gibichung hall, Gutrune nervously awaits her bridegroom’s return. Hagen tells her Siegfried has been killed by a wild boar, but when his body is carried in she accuses Gunther of murder. Hagen admits the crime. Quarrelling over the ring, Gunther is killed by Hagen, who falls back in fear when the dead Siegfried raises his hand. Brünnhilde, entering, orders a funeral pyre built for Siegfried. Musing on the gods’ responsibility for his death, she takes the ring and promises it to the Rhinemaidens. Placing it on her finger, she throws a torch onto the pyre and throws herself into the flames. As the river overflows its banks and the Gibichung hall is consumed, the Rhinemaidens, dragging Hagen to a watery grave, regain their gold. Flames engulf Valhalla, leaving a human world redeemed by love.