Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia), Yvonne Naef (Fricka), Jill Grove (Erda), Kim Begley (Loge), James Morris (Wotan), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich), Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt), John Tomlinson (Fafner)
In Norse mythology, Northern Europe consisted of three realms: the underworld, inhabited by Nibelungs; the earth's surface, inhabited by giants and mortals; and the cloudy heights of Valhalla, inhabited by the gods. Das Rheingold is the story of Valhalla’s creation.
The dwarf Alberich surprises three nymphs, or Rhinemaidens, playing in the waters of the Rhine. He tries to catch them as they dart through the waters. He is unsuccessful and frustrated, but then sunlight suddenly strikes the summit of a rock, illuminating the Rhinegold, the all-powerful treasure the maidens guard. The nymphs explain that anyone who would take the gold and wear a ring made from it would rule the world, but would have to give up love. Scrambling up the rock, Alberich forswears love, wrests the prize free and escapes as the Rhinemaidens try to catch him.
In the cloudy heights, husband and wife Fricka and Wotan slumber on a bank within sight of their newly built castle. When the two gods awaken, Fricka reproaches her husband for having promised her sister Freia to the giants Fafner and Fasolt as payment for constructing the fortress – a promise Wotan never intended to keep. Instead, he will work with the god Loge to find a substitute payment for the giants’ labor.
Loge suggests the Rheingold, and entices Fricka and Wotan with tales of its power. Fafner wants the gold, but wants Wotan to retrieve it for him; Fasolt wants Freia, and insists on holding her hostage.
Wotan and Loge descend to the gnomes’ underground domain and offer to help Mime, Alberich’s brother, whom he has tormented since capturing the Rheingold, and who does not recognize the gods.
Wotan and Loge confront the tyrannical Alberich, but he does not cower in fear of the gods; with the ring on, he is all powerful and plans to overthrow them. But what would happen if someone were to steal the ring? Alberich explains that Mime created the Tarnhelm, a helmet made from the treasure, which enables the wearer to change shape or become invisible. When Loge incredulously asks for a demonstration, Alberich shows the scope of the helmet’s powers by first turning into a dragon, and then into a toad – whereupon Wotan traps him under his foot and Loge takes the Tarnhelm. Alberich resumes his usual form and is tied and brought back to the gods’ home.
Loge and Wotan offer Alberich his freedom in exchange for the golden treasure. Begrudgingly, he agrees to surrender the hoard, thinking he will keep the ring and use it to get his riches back. Loge unties his right hand, enabling Alberich to kiss the Ring to summon his slaves, who deliver the gold. When Loge and Wotan keep the Tarnhelm and insist the ring be included, Alberich curses the ring so that envy and death befall all who possess it.
Alberich disappears as the other gods approach, followed by the giants Fasolt and Fafner with their hostage, Freia. Fasolt accepts the hoard of gold as substitute payment only if it hides his beloved Freia from his view. But the load of treasure is not quite enough: he can still see her hair through a crack. Loge adds the Tarnhelm to the hoard, but Fasolt can see the gleam of her eye through a chink. Fafner demands the ring, now on Wotan's finger, be added to the pile. Wotan refuses, but then darkness covers the mountaintop as Erda, the earth goddess, warns Wotan of the ring’s curse. Wotan tosses the ring onto the hoard, whereupon Freia is released, and Alberich's curse takes effect: Fafner then kills Fasolt, claiming the entire treasure for himself.
Fricka bids Wotan turn his thoughts better things – like their new home. The god of thunder dispels the mists that have enveloped the mountaintop, leaving a rainbow bridge to the fortress. Wotan leads the gods across, but Loge remains, muttering that they are going to their doom. As the gods cross into Valhalla, the Rhinemaidens are heard from below, grieving the loss of their treasure.