It received its premiere at the National Theatre in Munich on 22 September 1869, with August Kindermann in the role of Wotan, Heinrich Vogl as Loge, and Wilhelm Fischer as Alberich, much to Wagner's disgust, since he wanted this opera to be premiered as part of the entire cycle, however he was forced to allow the performance at the insistence of his patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The opera received its premiere as part of the complete cycle on 13 August 1876, in the Bayreuther Festspielhaus.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast|
September 22, 1869
(Conductor: Franz Wüllner)
|Cast in premiere of complete cycle|
August 13, 1876
(Conductor: Hans Richter)
|Wotan||bass-baritone||August Kindermann||Franz Betz|
|Loge||tenor||Heinrich Vogl||Heinrich Vogl|
|Fricka||mezzo-soprano||Sophie Stehle||Frederike Grün-Sadler|
|Freia||soprano||Henriette Muller||Marie Haupt|
|Donner||bass-baritone||Karl Samuel Heinrich||Eugen Gura|
|Froh||tenor||Franz Nachbaur||Georg Unger|
|Erda||contralto||Emma Seehofer||Luise Jaide|
|Alberich||baritone||Karl Fischer||Karl Hill|
|Mime||tenor||Max Schlosser||Karl Schlosser|
|Fasolt||bass-baritone||Toni Petzer||Albert Eilers|
|Fafner||bass||Kaspar Bausewein||Franz von Reichenberg|
|Woglinde||soprano||Anna Kaufmann||Lilli Lehmann|
|Wellgunde||soprano or mezzo-soprano||Therese Vogl||Marie Lehmann|
|Flosshilde||mezzo-soprano||Wilhelmine Ritter||Minna Lammert|
Das Rheingold begins with a 136-bar unmodulating prelude based on the chord of E flat major that is meant to represent the eternal unchanging motions of the River Rhine. It is considered the best known drone piece in the concert repertory, lasting approximately four minutes . It was claimed by Wagner in his autobiography Mein Leben that the musical idea came to him while he was half asleep in a hotel in La Spezia in Italy, but this has been disputed by Deathridge and others . The music grows in power, and the curtain rises. At the bottom of the River Rhine, the three Rhinemaidens (Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde) are playing together near the Rheingold. Alberich, a Nibelung dwarf, appears from a deep chasm and tries to woo them. Struck by Alberich's ugliness, the Rhinemaidens mock his advances and he grows angry. As the sun begins to rise, maidens praise the golden glow atop of a nearby rock, Alberich asks what it is. The Rhinemaidens tell him about the Rhinegold, which their father has ordered them to guard: it can be made into a magic Ring which will let its bearer rule the world, but only by someone who first renounces love. They think they have nothing to fear from the lustful dwarf, but Alberich, embittered by their mockery, curses love, seizes the gold and returns to the depths, as the Rhinemaidens flee in despair.
Wotan, ruler of the Gods, is asleep on a mountaintop with Fricka, his wife. Fricka awakes and sees a magnificent castle behind them. She wakes Wotan and points out that their new home has been completed. The giants Fasolt and Fafner built the castle; in exchange Wotan has offered them Fricka's sister Freia, the goddess of love. Fricka is worried for her sister, but Wotan is confident that they will not have to give Freia away.
Freia enters, terrified, followed by Fasolt and Fafner. Fasolt demands payment for their finished work. He points out that Wotan's rule is sustained by the treaties carved into his spear, including his contract with the giants. Donner (god of thunder) and Froh (god of spring) arrive to defend their sister Freia, but Wotan stops them; he cannot stop the giants by force and renege on their agreement.
To Wotan's relief, Loge (the fire god) makes his entrance; Wotan has placed his hopes on Loge's cunning to find a way out of the bargain. Loge tells them that Alberich the dwarf has stolen the Rheingold, and made a powerful magic ring out of it. Wotan, Fricka, and the giants all begin to lust after the Ring, and Loge curtly suggests the best method of acquiring it: "Durch Raub!" ("Through theft!"). Fafner demands it as payment in lieu of Freia. The giants depart, taking Freia with them as hostage.
Freia's golden apples had kept the Gods eternally young; with her absence, they begin to age and weaken. In order to win Freia back, Wotan is forced to follow Loge down into the earth, in pursuit of the ring.
An orchestral interlude follows that "paints" the descent of Loge and Wotan into Nibelheim. As the orchestra fades, it gives way to a choir of 18 tuned anvils (indicated in the score with specific size, quantity and pitch) beating out the dotted rhythm of the Nibelung theme to give a stark depiction of the toiling of the enslaved dwarves.
Wotan and Loge arrive and happen upon Mime, who tells them about Alberich's forging of the ring and the misery of the Nibelung under his rule. Alberich returns, driving his slaves to pile up a huge mound of gold. When they have finished, he dismisses them and turns his attention to the two visitors. He boasts to them about his plans to rule the world. Loge tricks him into demonstrating the magic of the Tarnhelm by having him transform into a snake (or dragon - the German word Wurm can mean both). Loge points out that it might be better to transform into a small creature in order to escape danger more easily, so Alberich turns into a toad. While he is a toad, the two gods quickly seize him and bring him up to the surface.
Fricka, Donner, and Froh arrive and are greeted by Wotan and Loge, who show them the gold that will ransom Freia. Fasolt and Fafner return, carrying Freia. Reluctant to release Freia, Fasolt insists that there must be enough gold to hide her from view. They pile up the gold, and Wotan is forced to relinquish the Tarnhelm to help cover Freia completely. However, Fasolt spots a final crack in the gold, and demands that Wotan also yield the ring. Loge reminds all present that the ring is rightly property of the Rhinemaidens. Wotan refuses to relinquish it, to Loge's displeasure, and the giants prepare to abduct Freia.
Suddenly, Erda the earth goddess, a primeval goddess in many ways superior to Wotan, appears out of the ground. She warns Wotan of impending doom and urges him to avoid the cursed ring. Troubled, Wotan surrenders the ring and sets Freia free. The giants start dividing the treasure, but they argue over the ring. Fafner clubs Fasolt to death and leaves with all the loot. Wotan, horrified, realizes that Alberich's curse has terrible power.
At last, the gods prepare to enter their new home. Donner summons a thunderstorm to clear the air. After the storm has ended, Froh creates a rainbow bridge that stretches to the gate of the castle. Wotan leads them across the bridge to the castle, which he names Valhalla. Fricka asks him about the name, and he replies that its meaning will be revealed if all goes well.
Loge, who knows that the end of the gods is coming, does not follow the others into Valhalla; he admits he is tempted to destroy them and what they have deceitfully acquired. Far below, the Rhinemaidens mourn the loss of their gold. The curtain falls.