The Ring Cycle reaches its devastating finale in Götterdämmerung’s tale of treachery and destruction. All seems lost after naked ambition betrays love, and villains outsmart heroes.
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.