Online opera guide & synopsis to Wagner’s RHINEGOLD
With “Rheingold,” Wagner depicts the worlds of the Rhinemaidens and the gods, the underworld of the Nibelungs and Valhalla Castle with masterful musical means. After a composer’s block of almost six years, the 40-year-old’s creativity exploded and he composed this colorful world within six months. It is inconceivable that the “Rheingold”, when it was heard for the first time 23 years later in the context of a Ring performance in Bayreuth, still convinced as a visionary work.
♪ Act I (Rhine Scene)
♪ Act II (Castle of gods scene)
♪ Act III (Nibelheim scene)
♪ Act IV (Curse scene, Finale)
♪ Weia, Waga Woga du Welle (Song of the Rhinemaidens)
Richard Wagner, based on a wide variety of primary sources. The main ones are: Greek mythology, the Nordic Edda saga and Völsung saga, and the German Nibelungenlied.
THE MAIN ROLES
Wellgunde, Flosshilde and Woglinde (mezzo-soprano / alto / soprano), mermaids and Rhinemaidens, guardians of the Rhinegold - Wotan, god and ruler of the world (baritone) - Fricka, goddess of marriage and wife of Wotan (mezzo-soprano) - Freia, goddess and guardian of the apples of eternal youth, sister of Fricka (soprano) - Donner and Froh, gods and brothers of Fricka (baritone / tenor) - Erda, seer and mother of the Norns (alto) - Loge, demigod and assistant of Wotan (tenor) - Fasolt and Fafner, giants (bass / bass) - Alberich, Nibelunge (baritone) - Mime, Nibelunge and brother of Alberich (tenor).
DECCA, George London, Kirsten Flagstadt, Set Svanholm, Eberhard Wächter and Gustav Neidlinger conducted by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic.
ROLES & SYNOPSIS OF RHEINGOLD
Richard Wagner, based on a wide variety of primary sources. The main ones are: Greek mythology, the Nordic Edda saga and Völsung saga, and the German Nibelungenlied..
Wellgunde, Flosshilde and Woglinde, mermaids and Rhine daughters, guardians of the Rhine gold - Wotan, god and ruler of the world - Fricka, goddess of marriage and wife of Wotan - Freia, goddess and guardian of the apples of eternal youth, sister of Fricka - Donner and Froh, gods and brothers of Fricka - Erda, seeress and mother of the Norns - Loge, demigod and assistant of Wotan - Fasolt and Fafner, giants - Alberich, Nibelunge - Mime, Nibelunge and brother of Alberich
DECCA, George London, Kirsten Flagstadt, Set Svanholm, Eberhard Wächter And Gustav Neidlinger conducted by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
The Ring, a long planned work
Wagner was already planning a large-scale work at the time of the composition of Lohengrin, at the end of the 1840s. He considered various materials, including “Jesus of Nazareth”. In the end the “Song of the Nibelungs” corresponded most to his ideas and it became an important literary basis. As always Wagner started with the libretto. Interestingly enough, he began with “Siegfried’s Death” (which later received the name Götterdämmerung, Twilight of Gods). He wrote the text from back to front, so that the text for the Rheingold 1853 was the last one to be written. Wagner quickly set about composing and he wrote the opera in 1853/54, partly during his stay in Italy.
He did not want to bring the work to the stage until all four operas had been written. But Ludwig the Second ordered the premiere against Wagner’s will in 1869 in Munich, seven years before the first performance of the Ring in Bayreuth.
The first part of the ring
In Rheingold, called the eve by Wagner, the fundamental conflicts of the tetralogy, especially the controversy over power and love, are presented, which then lead to the fight for the ring.
The Interpretation & much more informations
In the overall portrait to the ring I present the different approaches to the interpretation of the work. To read them, click on the link below. Moreover you will find there much more Information about history, interpretations, theory of leitmotifs etc.
Wagner put the history of the ring together from a wide variety of original sources. To be named are: Greek mythology, the Norse Edda and Voelsung sagas and the German Nibelungenlied.
The language – Wagner’s stave rhyme
In his textes Wagner often used the Nordic stave rhyme, which is a source of amusement for some listeners of his operas and the readers of his texts. Two examples from the song of the Rhinemaidens in Rheingold
– Vagalaweia! Wallala weialaweia!
– Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle, walle zur Wiege!
What was the reason for this strange poetry even for native speaking persons? Wagner was an excellent composer of songs. He was aware that the German language with its many consonants was not the perfect language for song texts. Most disturbing were those consonants at the end of the word. So it is obvious that the stave rhyme was not an end in itself, but a means of dealing with the German language by filling the sentences with vowels in a singer-oriented and singer-friendly manner.
The leitmotifs stick the work together
The ring is no longer structured by arias and duets, the number opera gives way to the “Musikdrama”. As an important structural element and bracket of the four works, Wagner used leitmotifs that we encounter again and again in all four operas. Every important detail, be it persons or things (for example the camouflage helmet or the sword), has its musical formula. Wagner already used this technique in early works, and in the Ring it becomes the most important compositional principle. Ernst von Wolzogen, a student of Richard Wagner, worked out an overview of the motifs before the first performance of the ring in 1876 and gave them names (e.g. “Curse Motif” or “Valhalla Motif”). The number of leitmotifs is estimated at well over one hundred! The motifs (some of them only short phrases) are changed, interwoven with each other, create new motifs again and thus become the style-forming element of the ring. They serve the listener as motifs to remember, comment on the events on stage and point out connections. It is comparable with the role of the narrator, “who communicates with the audience above the heads of the characters” (Holland, opera leader). One also speaks of the semantization of music. Wagner tolerated Wolzogen’s statements but warned against reducing the work to the leitmotifs. Wagner himself called them “Errinerungsmotive” (Reminiscence motifs). In this opera guide we will present about three dozen of the most important motifs individually (in the portraits of the respective works).
Wagner’s orchestra experienced an enormous massing of instruments withthe Ring and goes far beyond what is required for the Lohengrin, for example. However, Wagner’s aim was not volume, but a differentiation of tone colours in order to maximise the expressiveness and variation of the motifs.
History and first performance
Almost six compositionally meager years lay behind Richard Wagner when he began setting “Rheingold” to music in 1853. However, he had developed many of the leitmotifs during this time. His health was not good, and during a stay in La Spezia (Italy) he sank into a trance-like state, feeling as if he were sinking into water. This experience inspired him to write the prelude to “Rheingold”. The dam was broken and he began composing the work in Zurich. In 1854, barely a year after the stay in La Spezia, the score was finished. The work now lay in a drawer for 15 years, since Wagner only wanted to perform it as part of a complete Ring performance in a theater built especially for the purpose. Ludwig II, the owner of the performance rights, did not want to wait any longer and decided in 1869 to tackle the first performance in Munich. Wagner was horrified and wanted to talk the young king out of the plan. But the latter was determined to carry out his project. Wagner did everything possible from faraway Tribschen to sabotage the production, but without endangering the king’s generous pension, which ensured him a comfortable life in Tribschen. When the performance was in danger of failing due to the problems with the stage engineering, he threatened the king to remove the young Richter he had appointed to help realising the production. But Ludwig stood firm, and with the help of the ingenious stage technician Carl Brandt (who later gave him a hand in Bayreuth), the technical problems were overcome and the first performance (without Wagner’s presence) on September 22, 1869, at the Munich National Theater became a brilliant success. Ludwig was incensed by Wagner’s intrigue and even considered cutting off his financial support to the master.
RHEINGOLD ACT I
Synopsis: The world rested in its original state. It was not clouded by any domination. It rested on the world ash. The tree was the root of the holy order. In its shadow bubbled a spring, Feeding the world ash with its eternal wisdom. In the ground, in a misty tomb Erda slept. The wisest of all human beings. An intrepid God with the name Wotan seeked Power. He came to drink at the spring of wisdom. One of his eyes he paid as forfeit forever. He wanted to use the wisdom he had gained to create a new world order. Through laws and contracts, which were designed according to his will. From the world ash tree Wotan broke off a branch. He then cut a shaft for his spear. He carved the contracts and laws in runes in the spear. Wotan had thus taken over the rule of the world. To demonstrate and consolidate his power, Wotan wanted to build a castle. On the advice of Loge, he commissioned the giants Fafner and Fasolt to build it. As a reward, Wotan promised them the beautiful goddess Freia. The giants created a castle of the gods. Wotan called it Valhalla. The ash tree fell and the spring dried up forever. Wotan had the wood piled up in logs around the castle. The fire god Loge would ignite them when the end of the gods was approaching. Nature had been damaged, by Wotan’s outrage against the ash tree. Because Freia ensured eternal youth for the gods, and was therefore irreplaceable for them, Wotan sent Loge out into the world, to find another way of payment for the giants.
The ouverture: the original state
Wagner wrote the prelude to Rheingold as early as 1853; 17 years later it was heard for the first time in Munich. It is inconceivable that when the piece was first heard in Bayreuth, 23 years after its composition, it was still considered visionary music of the future.
The prelude develops from a deep E-flat major chord. Eight double basses, a bassoon and later the horns begin with a primal motive, the so-called Genesis motive. It is the world in its primal state, the creation out of nothing. We encounter the so-called Genesis leitmotif in this prelude.
Musical quote: Genesis motif
After 2 minutes the motif changes into a wavy melody representing the river Rhine flowing lazily along. It is the Rhine motif that presents the world in its natural order.
Musical quote: Rhine motif
Wagner creates a unique prelude from the E-flat Major chord. This chord lingers for 136 bars and forms the foundation for a gigantic crescendo, which magically leads the listener into the underwater world of the Rhine Mermaids.
It is the awakening from the deep. To be able to play the low Eb, the double bass have to tune the lowest string of their instrument lower than usual. More and more instruments tune in and drive the chord in waves before them until the curtain reveals the scenery of the first act.
Vorspiel – Solti
Synopsis: At the bottom of the Rhine. The Rhinemaidens Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde guard the Rhine gold. It is located in the middle of a reef in the Rhine. The dwarf Alberich from the people of the Nibelungs appears. Fascinated, he watches the mermaids, and lustfully tries to conquer at least one of them. The three mermaids look at him curiously, and soon they tease the clumsy dwarf.
Weia, Waga Woga du Welle – Donath / Moser / Reynolds
Alberich discovers the Rhinegold
Synopsis: Alberich discovers a bright light by which he is magically attracted. Credulously, the Rhine daughters tell him that there the Rhine gold gleams in the rays of the rising sun.
The beauty of gold shows the world in its natural order, unclouded by any domination. The Rhinemaidens as its keepers are not subject to any power. They sing of the hoard (the treasure) with the so-called Rhinegold motif:
Musical quote: Rheingold Motif
Synopsis: Whoever forges it into a ring gives it power over the world, but only if he renounces love.
The Rhinemaidens reveal the secret of the gold:
Only he who fosears lovs’power, only he woho fofeits love’s delight,
only he can attain the magic to fashion the gold into a ring
In the German text: “Nur wer der Minne Macht entsagt, nur der Liebe Lust verjagt, nur der erzielt sich den Zauber, zum Reif zu zwingen das Gold.”
We hear in this scene the so-called renunciation motif. The motif is heard in the trombones and Wagner tubas, which gives the motif a special, dark timbre:
Musical quote: renunciation motif
Lugt, Schwestern! Die Weckerin lacht in den Grund (Rheingold! Rheingold!)
You can see a second version in a production from Sweden.
Lugt, Schwestern! Die Weckerin lacht in den Grund (Rheingold! Rheingold!)
Synopsis: Alberich does not hesitate. Embittered by not having been granted love from the mermais, he curses love andit and steals the gold under the horrified gaze of the guards.
The Rhine daughters were carefree, they could not imagine that someone would renounce love for gold. They were sure, because Alberich seemed to be in love with them. . But Alberich is the disrupter of the natural order, whose mainspring is greed and power. Because love was impossible for him, he at least wants power. («If cannnot extort love, then by cunning can I attain pleasure», «Erzwäng ich nicht Liebe – doch listig erzwäng’ ich mir Lust!»)
Transition music instead of finale of the act
Wagner’s music of the ring unfolds in through-composed scenes in the spirit of the “Musikdrama”. So we do not hear a act finale, but we hear a so-called transformation music, while the stage set changes to the next scene. These transitions are extremely demanding for the production, as they are visible and thus have to merge into each other. In the transition music to the next scene another motif emerges, it is the ring motif.
Musical quote: ring motif
Orchesterzwischenspiel – Böhm
RHEINGOLD ACT II
Synopsis: A mountainous landscape. At the castle of the gods, Fricka wakes up her husband Wotan. He is still overwhelmed that his castle Valhalla is completed. Still shrouded in fog, it proudly stands on a mountain built by the giants Fafner and Fasolt.
In the orchestra we hear a motif that will accompany the listener through all 4 evenings. It’s the Valhalla motif.
Musical quote: Walhalla motif
In this scene we hear George London as Wotan and Kirsten Flagstadt as Fricka. London was Wieland Wagner’s preferred actor for the father of the gods. His acting was expressive and he was blessed with a powerful voice. Kirsten Flagstadt, the most famous Brünnhilde of the thirties, sang an outstanding Fricka in Solti’s famous Ring recording of the fifties.
Wotan, Gemahl, erwache – Flagstadt / London
Synopsis: But Wotan is in trouble. He has promised the two giants the Goddess Freia as a reward. Fricka admonishes him not to give away her sister Freia, for only she can assure the gods of her eternal youth. Wotan reminds his wife that it was she who had asked him for the castle, for she wanted to bind the notorious cheater Wotan to herself. Freia appears accompanied by her brothers Donner and Froh. She is panic fueled because she has heard of Wotan’s dealings. Now Wotan must promise not to give Freia away.
Fricka and Wotan have no children together. So Fricka, as the goddess of marriage, is dependent on other measures to cement the marriage. She hopes that the castle will bind her husband to her.
Freia, the goddess of love and youth, is the only goddess who can cultivate the golden apples that ensure the gods eternal youth. For lack of cash, Wotan gave her as a pawn, knowing that Fricka is irreplaceable. Wotan is a gambler who always plays for victory with high stakes.
Wotan cannot refuse payment, because he knows the importance of the contract he has made. Contracts secure his dominance and the spear that Wotan always carries with him is symbolic of this. Into the spear he carved the runes of the treaties that secured his rule. Wagner composed a Leitmotiv for this spear. We hear the motif in forte played heavy brass. It is called the spear/contract motif.
Musical quote: Contract and spear motif
The giants Fafner and Fasolt appear
Synopsis: The two giants appear. They refer to the castle they have built and want to claim their well-deserved reward. But he tells them that Freia is not available. Fafner and Fasolt accuse Wotan of cheating them out of their wages. They want no other reward.
The two giants Fafner and Fasolt appear accompanied by a wild musical motif:
Musical quote: Giant’s motif
Wotan isn’t thinking of giving up Freia. But Fasolt brings Wotan’s dilemma to the point:
“What you are, you are only by contracts”.
Sanft schloss dein Aug
Synopsis: Now appears Loge, the cunning demigod of fire. Wotan had summoned him in the hope that he could devise a ruse that would free him from the jam. If he cannot serve the contract, it would cost him his power. Fricka warns Wotan of the crafty Loge, but Wotan trusts his cunning. To Wotan’s dismay, Loge explains that he had searched everywhere, but he couldn’t find a replacement for Freia. In the process, he had come across the Rhinemaidens, who complained that Alberich had stolen their gold and were now seeking help from Wotan.
Loge tries to bring the trade “money against power” into play. Lodge is a demigod. He may move among the gods, but he is only a demigod. This can be interpreted as he is only tolerated, because he is their willing servant. This thesis can be supported by Wagner’s music. Loge’s motif is deeply unmusical, gauche and unsympathetic. Musically and psychologically he belongs to the kind of people like Alberich, Mime and Hagen.
Musical quote: Loge’s motif
Immer ist Undank Loges Lohn – Zednik
Synopsis: When Lodge tells about the magic of the forged ring and Wotan proposes to snatch it from Alberich to protect them from his claim to power, everyone wants the ring for themselves. Fafner and Fasolt, seized by greed, grab Freia and take it as a pawn. They announce that Freia will only be released when Wotan hands them the ring.
Fafner and Fasolt disagree. Fasolt is attached to Freia, while Fafner only sees the money. Fafner says to his brother
“Believe me that glittering gold
is worth more than Freia
for eternal youth he gains
who commands it by gold’s magic.”
“mehr als Freia
frommt das gleißende Gold
auch ew’ge Jugend erjagt
wer durch Goldes Zauber sie zwingt”.”
Fafner recognizes the same as Alberich: money cannot buy love, only lust. What goes for the dwarf goes for the giant.
Synopsis: Loge mocks the gods who are paralyzed by the fear of losing their eternal youth, as they can no longer eat apples from Freia’s apples, which Loge himself was never allowed to enjoy. Ageing already seizes the gods, and Wotan must set off together with Loge to Alberich’s underworld to wrest the ring from him.
RHEINGOLD ACT III
The entry into the realm of the Nibelungs
Synopsis: In Alberich’s kingdom. In drudgery his brother Mime has to forge a magic helmet for Alberich, which makes the wearer invisible and together with the ring gives him power over the Nibelungs.
The scene changes, the light becomes dark and the music merges seamlessly into the realm of the Nibelungs. The dwarfves of the Nibelungs live in simple dwellings under the earth, where they mine the ores of the ground in drudgery.
Musical quote: Nibelheim motif
As an introduction to the world of Nibelheim, the Nibelheim motif is accompanied by the hammering of anvils. In order to realize this ingenious idea Wagner specified that the orchestra must be equipped with sixteen tuned anvils of various sizes.
Orchesterzwischenspiel – Janowski
Here the scene of Wotan’s entry into the realm of the Nibelungs.
Mime and the magic helmet
Synopsis: Loge and Wotan meet the exhausted Mime and learn from him about the magic power of the helmet that Mime had to forge for Alberich. With the power of the ring, Alberich had subdued the industrious people of the Nibelungs. Alberich appears. Proud of the gold, he points out that the Nibelungs pile it up for him day after day with hard work. He knows that Wotan and the gods despise him, and he announces that he will use his power to bring the world under his control. No one can defeat him or steal the ring from him, because with the Tarnhelm he can disappear or transform himself.
We hear Hans Hotter, one of the preferred Wotan of the post-war period, in a live recording from Bayreuth. He had a soft, almost Belcantistic bass voice and pleasantly set himself apart from the provincial arrogance of the Wagner declamation of the interwar years («Bayreuth bark»).
Auf wonnigen Höhn – Hotter
Alberich is outwitted
Synopsis: Flatteringly Loge asks to show him how he can transform. Proudly Alberich turns into a dragon. Now Loge cunningly asks him if he can transform into something small. When Alberich turns into a toad, Wotan grabs it and Alberich is outwitted.
RHEINGOLD ACT IV
With Alberich’s curse the misfortune takes its course
Synopsis: Lodge and Wotan take Alberich to a mountain and Wotan demands that Alberich hand over the gold. His plan is to exchange the gold for Freia and keep the magic helmet and ring for himself. When he snatches the ring from Alberich, all power is taken from the Nibelung. The dwarf curses the ring to bring bad luck to its owner.
Wotan considers himself now safe from danger. He could kill several birds with one stone. He was able to break Alberich’s power, he got the gold to pay the giants and he is in possession of the ring that gives him the power. He doesn’t take the curse Alberich is casting seriously:
„Wer ihn besitzt, den sehre die Sorge, und wer ihn nicht hat, den nage der Neid“.
«Whoever possesses it shall be consumed with care, and who ever has it not be gnawed with envy.»
The curse motif is heard in the orchestra:
Musical quote: curse motif
Bin ich nun frei? – Brecht
Freia is weighed with gold
Synopsis: Freia leads the goddesses and gods, Fafner, Fasolt and the Rhinemaidens to the mountain. Wotan proudly shows them the captured treasure. Fasolt insists that the gold be piled high enough to hide her from view and they insist that Wotan gives them the helmet and the ring. But Wotan refuses.
The fog lifts. Wagner composes this beautifully by changing the orchestral part from the somber minor to the radiant major. In addition, Froh sings a beautiful arioso (“Wie liebliche Luft”).
Fasolt und Fafner nahen von fern – Furtwängler
Wotan is infected by the curse
Synopsis: There appears a mysterious, veiled woman wrapped in blue light. She urges Wotan to let go of the ring, because the curse of Alberich is on him. She reveals herself as Erda, the omniscient mother of the world. The gods urge Wotan to follow her advice. Wotan knows about the wisdom of Erda and agrees. He gives the ring to Fasolt and Freia is set free. Without knowing it, Wotan has been infected by the poison of the curse by touching the ring.
When Erda appears, the music changes its character. A mystical motif sounds, the so-called Erda motif. It is related to the natural motif (which we heard in the prelude), but sounds at a measured tempo and in a minor key.
Musical quote: Erda motif
When Erda disappears, Wotan realizes that he must visit her later. He calls her after “I must seize you and learn all” («Dich muss ich fassen, alles erfahren»). With her he will then father the Valkyries, among them the most magnificent of all: Brünnhilde.
We hear Jean Madeira as Edda, sung with much drama and vibrato.
Weiche Wotan Weiche – Madeira
The curse of the ring finds the first victim
Synopsis: Fafner and Fasolt quarrel when sharing the prey. Fafner violently kills his brother with a hammer. The curse has claimed its first victim.
Synopsis: Donner creates a purifying thunderstorm, the fog clears and they see the castle for the first time.
We hear the exultant motive of Donner, which resounds with enormous power in the wind instruments.
Musical quote: Donner (Thunder) motif
We hear the thunder motif, which rises with tremendous force in the winds. Together with the thunder motif in the orchestra and its calls (Hey! there!), we hear, magnificently onomatopoeic by violins and violas, the mist swirled by the wind.
Schwüles Gedünst schwebt in der Luft – Eberhard Wächter
Synopsis: Froh lets a rainbow emerge, which serves them as a path to the castle. Seized by a great thought, Wotan raises his sword against the castle. He will not return the ring, but a hero free of treaties. Seized, Wotan approaches the castle, he takes Fricka by the hand and christens her new home Valhalla.
We hear the rainbow motif in the orchestra:
Musical quote: rainbow motif
Then we hear the Valhalla motif, this time in radiant splendor, it is the triumph of Wotan to have given the gods a new home. With the appearance of the Ring motif, the joy is marred, for the castle was bought with Wotan’s breach of contract. Once again Wotan fights these gloomy prospects and is seized by a great thought: the sword motif sounds for the first time and refers to the coming events of the Ring:
Kurz Zitat Schwert Motiv
We listen to the radiant bass of George London, the Wotan of this recording.
Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge – London
The Rhinemaidens mourn the lost gold
Synopsis:Loge went out empty handed. He has only mockery and derision for the gods whose rule is based only on robbery and violence. From afar one hears the lamentations of the Rhinemaidens over the lost gold. The gods mock them and enter solemnly and fatuously their new home.
The motif of the Rhinemaidens resounds, now in the mournful minor. Hesitantly, we hear the sword motif, but then the orchestra picks up speed, together with the rainbow motif and the sword motif of the blaring trumpets and the glorious splendor of the orchestral tutti, the gods stride over the rainbow and enter Valhalla.
Rheingold! Rheingold! Reines Gold – London
Recording recommendation of the opera RHEINGOLD
DECCA with George London, Kirsten Flagstadt, Set Svanholm, Eberhard Wächter und Gustav Neidlinger under the direction of Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on RHINEGOLD by Richard Wagner.