Wagner's The Ring - plot essentials

Wagner's The Ring - plot essentials

Das Rheingold

On the bed of the Rhine, the Nibelung dwarf Alberich steals the Rhinegold from its guardians, the Rhinemaidens. Alberich then forges the Rhinegold into an all-powerful ring, but he has had to renounce love to achieve this.

Wotan, leader of the Gods, is encouraged by the mercurial fire god Loge to descend to Nibelheim and steals the gold – including the ring and the mysterious Tarnhelm which has the power to transform or conceal the wearer at will – from Alberich. Wotan needs the gold to pay off two giants – Fasolt and Fafner – who've built his new palace, Valhalla, and to ransom Freia, goddess of youth, who has been held by the giants as surety for the debt.

However, Alberich has cursed the powerful ring – all those who possess it (mortals and gods alike) are doomed. The Gods enter Valhalla in triumph, but Wotan's weakness and deceit will make it a hollow triumph.

First Day - Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)

Act 1

Siegmund is the victim of a man-hunt. He stumbles into a hut for shelter and encounters Sieglinde and her husband Hunding, one of his pursuers. Hospitality rules grant Siegmund one night of shelter. Siegmund falls in love with Hunding's wife, Sieglinde, little realising that she is his own sister (Wotan is their father). Sieglinde speaks to Siegmund of her unhappiness; he swears to free her from her marriage. She gives her husband a sleeping-draught. Sieglinde leads Sigmund to the tree round which the hut is built. Buried in it up to the hilt is a sword, left by a one-eyed stranger (Wotan) who attended her forced marriage to Hunding. No-one has been strong enough to withdraw it. Siegmund wrenches the sword from the tree. Sieglinde recognises their shared parentage and Act 1 ends as the transfigured couple embrace and make love.

Act 2

Wotan faces a dilemma: should he stand by the wronged husband Hunding, or by his own son Siegmund? Wotan decides to send his daughter Brunnhilde to defend Siegmund in the forthcoming fight with Hunding; but his wife Fricka - goddess of marriage - violently disagrees, thinking that incestuous love should not be condoned: Hunding's marriage should be defended. Announcing Siegmund's death and promising him eternal life among heroes in Valhalla, Brunnhilde is overcome with sympathy for Siegmund, and disobeying her father's orders, defends him. Wotan intervenes, causing Siegmund's sword to shatter, and he is slain; disgusted with himself, Wotan strikes Hunding dead.

Act 3

Brunnhilde's sister Valkyries gather on a mountain-top - their task is to convey dead heroes to Valhalla. Brunnhilde arrives with Sieglinde and tells her that she is pregnant with Siegmund's child, who will be a great hero. Wotan is outraged that his daughter Brunnhilde tried to protect Siegmund against his express wishes. He threatens to imprison his daughter for disobeying him, but she pleads with him. Wotan relents, and surrounds Brunnhilde with a wall of fire, so that only a hero may free her ...


Act 1

The action moves to a forest setting, and forward to the time of Siegfried's youth - he, unwitting, is the offspring of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and grandson of Wotan. The Nibelung dwarf Mime (brother of Alberich) is Siegfried's guardian, and skilful and accomplished blacksmith. Mime has tried repeatedly to forge a new sword for Siegfried. Siegfried forces Mime to reveal the true identity of his parents. Cajoled into providing proof, Mime shows him the broken fragments of his father's sword; Siegfried orders Mime to repair the sword and heads off into the forest. Wotan, in the guise of the Wanderer, appears and engages Mime in a deadly game of riddles. Mime risks losing his head when he is unable to answer who will forge the sword fragments together again. The answer is 'only one who has never felt fear' - Mime's head will be forfeit to such a hero.

Mime determines to save himself by teaching Siegfried fear. He will introduce him to the dragon Fafner who guards the ring, the Tarnhelm and the golden hoard. Siegfried returns and manages to repair the sword - Notunbg - himself, and so shows his potential as a hero. Mime now plots to get Siegfried to win back the all-powerful ring, before getting rid of him ...

Act 2

Alberich, the first owner of the ring, is staking out Fafner's cave, hoping to retrieve the ring. The Wanderer appears, and, knowing that the forthcoming events are inexorable, prompts Alberich to waken Fafner to persuade him to part with the ring in return for a warning that he might shortly be murdered; Fafner refuses to stir. Mime and Siegfried arrive; Siegfried kills the dragon and retrieves the ring and Tarnhelm. Mime tries to trick Siegfried into taking poison, but the dragon's blood has given Siegfried the power to read Mime's mind, and he kills Mime in disgust. Siegfried, now alone amid nature, asks the Woodbird to send him a companion. The Woodbird tells Siegfried about Brunnhilde, who can only be claimed by a fearless hero; the bird flies off to show Siegfried the way.

Act 3

The Wanderer (Wotan) summons Erda the Earth-Goddess (and mother of Brunnhilde and the Valkyries) to ask her advice in slowing down the world's destiny -- the inevitable end of the gods. She has no solution to offer. Siegfried arrives and the crucial confrontation between the enlightened but doomed god and the ignorant but vigorous young hero ends with Siegfried using his sword, Notung, to split asunder Wotan's spear (carved from the World Ash Tree and totem of his rule over the universe). With the twilight of the gods a certainty, the now powerless and despairing Wanderer exits the scene, and the series of Ring operas. Siegfried sets off in search of Brunnhilde, reaches the Valkyrie rock, but finds his way barred by its surrounding magic wall of fire. Siegfried plunges through the fire and is surprised by what he finds on the other side ... He removes the protective armour from the slumbering warrior and finds Brunnhilde, who returns to life from her slumbers. Her fears over losing her fierce independence are overcome by the power of Siegfried's love, and they conclude the opera in a long duet of ecstatic abandon.

Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)


The opening scene begins in near-darkness and is heavy in symbolism. It opens on the Valkyries' rock, where the three Norns (offspring of Erda) weave a rope of knowledge representing a physical time-line. But the time-line becomes unstable and they are powerless to prevent the rope breaking - the link between past and present is irrevocably destroyed.

Siegfried and Brunnhilde emerge into morning light; fortified by the strength of their love, and protected by Brunnhilde's magic, Siegfreid goes forth into the world to seek new adventures.

Act I

Siegfried's Rhine journey brings him to the Gibichung Hall, where Gunther and his sister Gutrune rule. Also at court is Hagen, their half-sibling and illegitimate son of the Nibelung dwarf Alberich. Hagen is plotting to recover the ring and suggests that Gunther should consolidate his power by marrying Brunnhilde, while Gutrune marries Siegfried.

Hagen provides Gutrune with a drug which will make Siegfried forget other women. The trick works, and Siegfried is enraptured enough of Gutrune to try to win Brunnhilde for her brother Gunther. Meanwhile, Brunnhilde's Valkyrie sister Waltraute visits her, bringing a request from Wotan that the ring should be returned to the Rhinemaidens, in order to lift the curse over the gods; Brunnhilde refuses to give up the ring, and the fate of the gods is sealed.

There is a disturbance in the magic fire, and Siegfried returns, using the Tarnhelm to deceive Brunnhilde into thinking he is Gunther. He will bring Brunnhilde to the Gibichung Hall, by force.

Act 2

Alberich appears to the sleeping Hagen, reminding him of their pledge to destroy Siegfried and recover the ring. Siegfried arrives ahead of Gunther and Brunnhilde. In the only chorus scene in the Ring operas, Hagen summons his vassals with a call to armed battle; to their confusion, the summons is instead to welcome the wedding party.

Brunnhilde is abject and humiliated, but the sight of the ring on Siegfried's finger reveals the deception and enrages her. Siegfried swears on Hagen's spear that it may pierce his body if he lies about his identity. But Brunnhilde tells Hagen that her magic does not protect Siegfried's back as he would never turn and flee an enemy. With Hagen and Gunther plotting against Siegfried, with Brunnhilde's unwitting collusion, Siegfried is doomed; to spare Gutrune's feelings, his death will be contrived as part of a hunting accident.

The Act concludes with the hollow anticipation of a doomed double-wedding.

Act 3

In the forest, Siegfried meets the Rhinemaidens who warn that he will die that day if he does not return the ring. He dismisses them and returns to the hunting party, regaling them with stories of his adventures. Hagen arranges for him to drink an antidote to the drug which has made him forget Brunnhilde, and the truth of his relationship with her is revealed.

This is Hagen's excuse to kill Siegfried, which he does by tricking him into turning his back. Siegfried's body is conveyed to the Gibichung Hall in a solemn funeral march. Hagen kills Gunther in a fight over the ring, but the dead Siegfried's arm rises to prevent him taking it. The re-enlightened Brunnhilde takes command of the situation and finds a way to expiate the crimes which started when Alberich stole the Rhinegold.

She commands Siegfried's body to be cremated on a funeral pyre; she rides her horse Grane into the fire to relieve the curse and join her husband in death. The waters of the Rhine overwhelm the Gibichung Hall; Hagen makes a desperate attempt to salvage the ring, but is swept away; the Rhinemaidens finally claim the ring. The gods are glimpsed, assembled in Valhalla as the flames engulf them too. The Ring of the Nibelung concludes with the soaring Redemption theme, only previously heard in Die Walkure.

© Graeme Kay/BBC