A Beginner’s Guide to Wagner’s RING Cycle

Completed in 1874, Richard Wagner’s legendary Ring cycle consists of four individual operas  Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung  and totals about 15 hours of music. Lyric is excited to finally present the final installment of the cycle, Götterdämmerung, this season along with the full cycle presented in April of 2020. We’ve compiled this recap of this epic story to help you brush up on everything you’ll want to know before attending this immersive adventure that every opera lover should experience.

Das Rheingold

The Characters

Wotan: King of the gods and the main protagonist of the cycle

Fricka: Wotan’s wife and goddess of marriage

Freia: Fricka’s sister and goddess of youth and beauty

The Rhinemaidens: Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde; dwell in the Rhine River

Alberich: Nibelung dwarf

Fasolt and Fafner: Two giants; hired by Wotan to build his castle, Valhalla

Loge: God of fire

Erda: Goddess of the earth

 

The Story

The curtain opens on the Rhinemaidens guarding gold at the bottom of the Rhine River. Alberich appears and notices the gold, and Wellgunde explains to him that the gold will bring incredible power to whoever forges it into a ring, but on the condition that he must renounce love completely. Alberich begins lusting after the Rhinemaidens, who in turn mock him for his ugliness. In a fit of rage, Alberich renounces love and steals the gold from the Rhine. He forges the Ring of Power and declares himself lord of the Nibelungs.

Meanwhile, Fasolt and Fafner have completed the construction of Wotan’s new palace and have been promised Freia as their payment. When Fricka and Freia plead with Wotan for Freia’s protection from the giants, he assures them that Loge has a plan to save her. The giants arrive, demanding Freia. Wotan attempts to compromise with them on another form of payment, but they warn him not to break their contact. Loge finally appears, and relays the news of Alberich stealing the gold from the Rhine. Feeling threatened by the Nibelung’s new power, Fasolt convinces Fafner that the gold will be a more valuable reward than Freia, and they agree to return that evening to collect it, meanwhile seizing Freia as collateral.

Wotan and Loge depart for Alberich’s kingdom, Nibelheim. Upon their arrival, they learn that Alberich has enslaved the Nibelungs into mining him an enormous amount of gold. Wotan and Loge drag Alberich away as their prisoner, seizing the ring and all of the gold. In another fit of rage, Alberich curses the ring and all those who possess it in the future.

The giants return with Freia, and Wotan and Loge offer them Alberich’s bounty of gold. Fafner also demands the ring, which is now worn by Wotan. Wotan refuses, and the giants threaten to call off the deal and leave with Freia. Erda appears and warns Wotan of the curse, urging him to rid himself of the ring. He reluctantly agrees and hands it over to the giants, who immediately fight over it. Fafner kills Fasolt on the spot and flees with the loot.

The sky clears and the gods’ new home comes into view and Wotan proudly proclaims the new palace will be named Valhalla. A rainbow bridge appears and Wotan leads the gods into Valhalla as the curtain falls.

Die Walküre

The Characters

Wotan: King of the gods 

Fricka: Wotan’s wife and goddess of marriage

Siegmund: Wotan’s son

Sieglinde: Wotan’s daughter

Hunding: Sieglinde’s husband

The Valkyries: Wotan’s immortal daughters

Brünnhilde: Wotan’s daughter and leader of the Valkyries

Fafner: Giant from Rheingold; uses the ring’s power to turn himself into a dragon

Loge: God of fire

 

The Story

A fugitive Siegmund arrives at the home of Hunding on a dark and stormy night, requesting shelter. Hunding recognizes Siegmund as an enemy and grants him sanctuary for the evening, but must challenge him to a duel in the morning. Siegmund discovers a sword called Nothung left for him in the trunk of a tree outside of the house by his father. Sieglinde reappears after having drugged her husband with a sleeping draught and tells Siegmund of events that lead them to realize they are twin brother and sister. Siegmund draws the sword Nothung from the tree and having fallen in love with Sieglinde, the two flee together into the night. 


In Valhalla, Wotan commands Brünnhilde to protect Siegmund, a challenge she gladly accepts. Fricka enters, enraged at Sieglinde’s renouncement of her marriage vows to Hunding. As punishment, Fricka insists that Siegmund must die in his upcoming duel with Hunding. Wotan argues that Siegmund could save the gods by winning back the Ring of Power from Fafner before the Nibelungs reclaim it. Fricka points out that Siegmund’s newly-acquired sword strips him of being a free agent and getting the ring back would be impossible. Wotan realizes he is trapped and sadly agrees to Siegmund’s death. With his original plan in shambles, Wotan tells Brünnhilde that Hunding must now succeed as the victor of his 
duel with Siegmund. Brünnhilde is shocked that Wotan would betray his son, but Wotan remains firm and orders her to carry out his command. 

 

Siegmund consoles a distraught Sieglinde and watches over her as she falls asleep. Brünnhilde appears as a messenger and forewarns Siegmund that he will soon die and be taken to Valhalla, but he refuses to leave Sieglinde. Moved by his courage, Brünnhilde rebels against Wotan’s orders and promises Siegmund that she will protect him. Hunding approaches and Siegmund accepts his challenge, but Wotan appears and shatters Nothung with his spear just as Siegmund is about to win. Siegmund is killed and Brünnhilde escapes with Sieglinde and the broken sword in tow.

The Valkyries gather on their mountaintop bearing slain heroes to Valhalla. Brünnhilde arrives with Sieglinde and explains that she is fleeing Wotan’s wrath, begging the others to protect Sieglinde. They tell her that the forest that houses Fafner is safe from Wotan. Sieglinde is numb with despair until she learns from Brünnhilde that she is carrying Siegmund’s child. Thrilled, she gathers the remnants of Nothung and disappears into the forest to hide.

Wotan appears, and in his fury sentences Brünnhilde to become a mortal woman. The Valkyries flee, leaving Brünnhilde and Wotan alone together. Brünnhilde pleads with her father, saying that she only disobeyed his words, not his true desire to protect Siegmund. He refuses to relent and condemns her to lie in sleep on the mountaintop. She asks to be surrounded by a fire that only a fearless hero can penetrate. Wotan grants her request and in a heartbroken farewell, kisses her eyes with sleep. He summons Loge to encircle the mountain in flames, and as the fire comes to life, Wotan invokes a spell forbidding the mountain to anyone who fears his spear.

Siegfried

The Characters

Siegfried: Siegmund and Sieglinde’s son

Mime: Nibelung dwarf

Alberich: Nibelung dwarf and Mime’s brother 

Fafner: A dragon

Wotan: King of the gods 

Brünnhilde: Wotan’s daughter

Erda: Goddess of the earth

 

The Story

In his cave in the forest, Mime forges a sword for his foster son Siegfried. Mime hates Siegfried but hopes that he will kill Fafner so that Mime can reclaim the Ring of Power from the Nibelungs’ treasure. Siegfried arrives and unhappily smashes his new sword, cursing Mime for his stupidity. Realizing that he can’t be Mime’s son, he demands to know who his parents were. For the first time, Mime tells Siegfried how he found Sieglinde in the woods, who later died giving birth to him. When he shows Siegfried the fragments of his father’s sword, Nothung, Siegfried orders Mime to repair it for him and rushes out.

As Mime sinks in despair, Wotan enters in the guise of a human wanderer. He challenges Mime to a riddle competition, in which the loser must forfeit his head. The Wanderer easily answers Mime’s three questions about the Nibelungs, the giants, and the gods. Mime, in turn, answers the traveler’s first two questions without a problem but gives up in terror when asked who will repair Nothung. The Wanderer departs in peace but leaves the dwarf’s head to the fearless hero who can re-forge the magic blade.

Siegfried returns and demands his father’s sword, but Mime tells him that he can’t repair it. In vain, he tries to explain fear to Siegfried and proposes a visit to Fafner’s cave. Siegfried agrees and decides to forge the sword himself. While Siegfried works, Mime prepares a poisonous draught to give to him once he has killed Fafner. Siegfried flashes the finished sword, smashes the anvil in half, and runs off into the forest.

Meanwhile, Alberich is hiding by the entrance to Fafner’s cave, consumed by winning back the ring for himself. The Wanderer enters and urges Alberich to watch out for Mime. He then wakes Fafner and warns him of Siegfried’s intentions to kill him, but the dragon is unimpressed and goes back to sleep.

Mime and Siegfried arrive at dawn. Siegfried becomes enchanted by the beauty of the woods and tries to imitate the song of a bird on a reed pipe. He fails and blows his horn instead, awakening Fafner. A battle ensues and Siegfried kills the dragon. With his dying words, Fafner warns Siegfried of the destructive power of the treasure. A drop of Fafner’s blood accidentally touches Siegfried’s lips, and suddenly he understands the singing of the bird, which directs him to the gold in the cave. Alberich and Mime appear, quarreling, but they withdraw as Siegfried returns with the Ring. The bird warns Siegfried not to trust Mime, and when Mime offers him the draught, Siegfried kills him. The bird then tells Siegfried of a beautiful woman asleep on a mountain surrounded by fire, and he sets out to find her.

High on a mountain pass, the Wanderer summons Erda to learn the gods’ fate. She evades his questions, and he resigns himself to the impending doom of Valhalla. Siegfried approaches the Wanderer and mocks him. Out of anger, the Wanderer attempts to block Siegfried’s path, but with a stroke of his sword, Siegfried shatters the Wanderer’s spear. The Wanderer retreats in defeat, and Siegfried advances.

Siegfried reaches the mountaintop where Brünnhilde sleeps. He removes Brünnhilde’s armor and is overcome to find the first woman he has ever seen. Overwhelmed by the sight of her beauty, Siegfried finally realizes the meaning of fear. He masters his emotions and awakens Brünnhilde with a kiss. Brünnhilde is overjoyed to learn that it is Siegfried who has brought her back to life. She tries to resist his declarations of passion, realizing that earthly love must end her immortal life, but finally gives in and joins Siegfried in praise of love, bidding Valhalla farewell.

Götterdämmerung

The Characters

Norns: Erda’s daughters

Wotan: King of the gods

Siegfried: Siegmund and Sieglinde’s son

Brünnhilde: Wotan’s daughter, Siegfried’s lover

Gunther: King of the Gibichungs

Gutrune: Gunther’s sister

Hagen: Gunther and Gutrune’s half-brother and Alberich’s son

The Rhinemaidens: Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde; dwell in the Rhine River

Alberich: Nibelung dwarf

 

The Story

At night on the Valkyries’ rock, the three Norns weave the Rope of Destiny. They recall the days of Wotan’s reign and predict the fall of Valhalla. Suddenly the rope breaks and with their wisdom ended, the Norns descend into the earth.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde emerge at dawn. Although Brünnhilde fears she may lose her hero, she sends him into the world to do his deeds. As a pledge of his love, Siegfried gives her the ring and she offers her horse, Grane, in return. They bid farewell and Siegfried sets off.

In the castle of the Gibichungs on the Rhine, Gunther and Gutrune consult Hagen on the royal family’s dwindling status. Hagen, plotting to steal the ring, advises them to strengthen their rule through marriage, suggesting Brünnhilde for Gunther and Siegfried for Gutrune. Hagen presents a potion that will induce Siegfried to forget Brünnhilde so that he may fall in love with Gutrune. To win her as his wife, he will claim Brünnhilde for Gunther. Siegfried’s horn signals his arrival and Gunther welcomes him into the castle. Gutrune offers Siegfried the potion, sealing his fate. Siegfried salutes Brünnhilde as he takes the cup but immediately confesses his love to Gutrune upon emptying it. When Gunther describes his bride, Siegfried agrees to bring Brünnhilde to him. The two men seal their bargain and set out on their quest.

Waltraute, a Valkyrie, arrives at Brünnhilde’s rock begging her sister for help. She explains that Wotan has warned that the only way to save the gods is for Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens. Brünnhilde refuses, declaring that Siegfried’s love is more important to her than the fate of the gods. Waltraute leaves in despair. Siegfried’s horn is heard in the distance and he reappears disguised as Gunther. Snatching the ring from a now-terrified Brünnhilde, he claims her as Gunther’s bride.

As Hagen sleeps outside of the Gibichungs’ hall that night, Alberich appears as if in a dream and reminds him that he must regain the ring. Dawn breaks and Siegfried arrives, proclaiming that he has won Brünnhilde for Gunther. Hagen calls the Gibichungs to welcome the king and his bride. Gunther enters with Brünnhilde, who recoils when she sees Siegfried wearing the ring. Still under the influence of the potion, Siegfried tells her that she is to become Gunther’s wife while he marries Gutrune. Brünnhilde accuses Siegfried of betraying her, declaring he is her true husband. Siegfried swears on Hagen’s spear that he has done nothing wrong, dismisses her accusations, and leads the others away to celebrate.

Brünnhilde is now consumed with the desire for vengeance. Hagen offers to kill Siegfried, and she reveals Siegfried’s does one vulnerable spot: a blade in the back will kill him. Gunther hesitates to join the plot, but taunted by Brünnhilde and lured by Hagen’s description of the ring’s power, he gives in.

In the forest, the Rhinemaidens mourn their lost treasure. Siegfried stumbles onto the banks of the river, and they plead with Siegfried to return the ring to them. He ignores their begging and the Rhinemaidens predict his imminent death, disappearing as the party arrives. At Hagen’s insistence, Siegfried tells of his youth and his life with Mime, how he re-forged the sword Nothung, and his battle with the dragon Fafner. As he recalls these events, Hagen offers him wine containing an antidote to the potion. His memory restored, Siegfried next describes his wooing of Brünnhilde. At the mention of her name, Hagen drives his spear into Siegfried’s back. Siegfried remembers Brünnhilde with his last words and dies.

Gutrune anxiously awaits the return of her bridegroom. Hagen enters and tells her that Siegfried has been killed by a wild boar, but when his body is brought in she accuses Gunther of murder. Gunther replies that Hagen is, in fact, the one who committed the deed. The two men quarrel over the ring and Gunther is killed. Hagen reaches for the ring, but retreats in fear as the dead Siegfried threateningly raises his arm. Brünnhilde enters and calmly orders a funeral pyre to be built on the banks of the Rhine. She denounces the gods for their guilt in Siegfried’s death, takes the ring from his hand and promises it to the Rhinemaidens. She lights the pyre and throws herself onto the flames. While the Rhine floods and destroys the hall, Hagen dives into the water to seize the ring but is dragged into the water by the Rhinemaidens, who joyfully reclaim their gold. In the distance, Valhalla and the gods perish in flames.