Der Ring des Nibelungen
(The Ring of Nibelung)

Updated June 26, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Richard Wagner
Archive Photos
Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold)
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) Siegfried
Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods)
Music and Libretto:Richard Wagner
Premiere:Bayreuth, August 1876

Wagner's four-part Ring cycle follows the fortunes of gods, giants, gnomes and humans as they battle greed and betrayal to reach a final redemption. In the first drama, Das Rhinegold, the Nibelung dwarf Alberich renounces love to gain possession of the mysterious Rhine gold, from which he fashions the ring that grants him mighty powers.

Meanwhile Wotan, king of the gods, regrets his promise to trade Freia, goddess of youth and beauty, for the giants' help in building Valhalla, home of the gods. Wotan dupes Alberich and steals the magic Ring, giving it to the giants in place of Freia. But Alberich has cursed the ring and all who touch it, and Wotan has brought this curse upon the gods.

As Die Walküre opens, Siegmund staggers into the hut where Sieglinde fearfully awaits the return of Hunding, whom she was forced to marry. The two fall in love, unaware that both are Wotan's human children. Wotan commands his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde of the fierce Valkyries, to defend Siegmund against Hunding, but his wife, the goddess Fricka, reminds him that Siegmund has violated Sieglinde's marriage vows and must die. Heartbroken and still under the Ring's curse, Wotan orders Brünnhilde to help Hunding defeat Siegmund in battle. Brünnhilde admires the strength of Siegmund's passion and defies her father, but at the last moment Wotan furiously intervenes, causing Siegmund's death. To punish his Valkyrie daughter, Wotan puts her to sleep on Brünnhilde Rock, inside a ring of fire that only a true hero would dare to defy. Brünnhilde tells her father that Sieglinde has hidden in the forest to give birth to Siegfried, who will help the gods defeat their enemies.

Siegfried relates how Sieglinde's baby is rescued from his dead mother's side and raised by Mime, a Nibelung dwarf who plots that Siegfried will grow up to slay the giant Fafner and reclaim the magic ring. Siegfried fearlessly welds the halves of his father Siegmund's splintered sword and slays Fafner. but kills Mime for his treachery, while Alberich's evil laugh is heard in the background. Meanwhile, the exhausted god Wotan gives up his kingship, abandoning the world to the rule of human love. A bird guides brave Siegfried to Brünnhilde Rock, where he battles through the ring of flames to reach the sleeping maiden. Inspired by his passion, Brünnhilde renounces her magical Valkyrie powers, and the lovers are joyfully united by the cursed ring.

But the gods' final reckoning awaits them in the fourth drama, Götterdämmerung. Hagen, son of the evil Alberich, devises a devilish plot to kill Siegfried and steal the Ring from Brünnhilde's finger. He convinces his half-sister Gutrune to feed Siegfried a potion that erases the hero's memory of Brünnhilde and makes him lust after Gutrune. The besotted Siegfried agrees to kidnap his former love as a bride for Gutrune's brother Gunther, and as Brünnhilde vainly defends herself, Siegfried seizes the ring from her. Unaware of the treachery afoot, Brünnhilde denounces Siegfried's betrayal, but he can remember nothing and denies all guilt. After the double wedding, the Rhine maidens, who are rightful owners of the Ring, beg Siegfried to return it to them, but he refuses, not realizing that he is under its curse. In his lust for the Ring, Hagen drives his spear into Siegfried's back. But when Hagen reaches to steal the Ring from Siegfried's corpse, the dead man's hand raises itself to shake him off, and Brünnhilde appears on her magic charger. Seizing the ring, she lights a funeral pyre and rides into the flames, immolating the corrupt reign of the gods forever. Brünnhilde's sacrifice returns the cursed ring to the Rhine maidens and purifies the world for the new rule of human love.

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