Libretto by the composer
World premiere: Munich, Court Theater, September 22, 1869
In mythical times. In the depths of the Rhine, the Rhinemaidens Woglinde, Flosshilde, and Wellgunde laugh and play as they swim. Their singing attracts the dwarf Alberich, who clumsily tries to catch them, to their amusement. Suddenly a beam of sunlight falls into the water, creating a golden glow. The Rhinemaidens joyfully swim around it while Alberich, dazzled by the sight, asks them what it is. The girls tell him about the Rhine gold, a treasure of immeasurable value, and explain that whoever wins it will gain power over the world, but to do so he must renounce love. Frustrated by his unsuccessful attempts to catch one of the girls, the ugly dwarf curses love and steals the gold.
High on a mountain, Fricka, the goddess of marriage, wakes her husband, Wotan, lord of the gods. Delighted, he looks at their newly built castle visible in the distance, but Fricka reproaches him: Wotan has promised her sister Freia, goddess of youth, to the giants Fasolt and Fafner in return for building the fortress. Suddenly Freia runs in, pursued by the giants, who demand payment. Wotan manages to hold them back with the help of Donner and Froh, two other gods who rush in to help. Finally Loge, the god of fire, appears. He cleverly suggests an alternative payment: the ring that Alberich has forged from the Rhine gold and all the other treasures he has accumulated. The giants agree, dragging Freia off as hostage. With the youth goddess gone, the gods suddenly begin to age. Wotan and Loge hurry down through the earth to find Alberich.
In Nibelheim, the underground home of the Nibelungs, Alberich forces his timid brother Mime to give him the Tarnhelm, a magic helmet Mime has made that transforms its wearer into any shape and that can carry him anywhere in a second. Alberich tries it on, turns invisible and torments Mime before going off to terrorize the other dwarves whom he has enslaved to work for him. Wotan and Loge arrive, and Mime tells them about Alberich's cruel dictatorship. Reappearing, Alberich mocks the gods and threatens to conquer the world and enslave them. Loge asks for a demonstration of the Tarnhelm and Alberich obliges, turning himself first into a huge serpent, then into a toad, which the gods capture easily. Loge snatches the Tarnhelm, and as Alberich resumes his old form they bind him and drag him off.
Back on the mountain, Alberich is forced to summon the Nibelungs to heap up the gold for Freia's ransom. Loge keeps the Tarnhelm-and Wotan wants the ring. Alberich says he would rather die than give it up, but Wotan wrests it from his finger, suddenly overcome with lust for its power. Alberich is shattered. Freed and powerless, he curses the ring: ceaseless worry and death shall be the destiny of all who possess it. After the dwarf has left, Fricka, Donner, and Froh welcome back Wotan and Loge, who show them the pile of gold. The giants return with Freia. Fasolt, who loves the girl, agrees to accept the gold if it completely hides her from his view. Froh and Loge pile up the treasure and even give up the Tarnhelm, but Fasolt can still see Freia's eye through a crack. Fafner demands the ring to close it. When Wotan refuses, the giants start to carry Freia off. They are stopped by the sudden appearance of Erda, goddess of the earth, who warns Wotan that possession of the ring will bring about the end of the gods. Wotan wants to know more and tries to question her, but she vanishes. He decides to follow her advice and throws the ring on the hoard. Alberich's curse immediately claims its first victim as Fafner kills his brother in a dispute over the ring. The gods are horrified. Donner clears the air with thunder and lightning and a rainbow appears, forming a bridge to the castle. Wotan names it Valhalla. As the voices of the Rhinemaidens echo from the valley below, lamenting the loss of the Rhinegold, the gods proudly walk toward their new home.