Der Ring des Nibelungen
I will try to give you a brief idea of what goes on in the Ring, but you have to keep in mind that there is so much, you just can't get the feel for how much Wagner has packed into these 15 hours of opera without studying it in the original. Here are the basics, in a nutshell:
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The Rhine river has these mermaid-like female creatures living in it. They're called the Rhinemaidens, and they have this magic gold. The gold isn't much but a plaything to them, but if it were to be made into a ring by someone who had completely given up on love, then he would have the power to rule the world. (In an interesting later scene, we learn that the only power the Ring would give to a woman is that it would keep her husband faithful. Hmmm...)
Guess what happens? Alberich comes along and steals it from them when they won't fall in love with him. He's a Nibelung, which is a race of hideous dwarfs who live in the bowels of the earth, and so he's pretty disgusting. He curses love, takes the gold (to the Rhinemaidens' horror), and makes the ring. This makes him lord of the Nibelung race, and he treats them all pretty badly.
Meanwhile, the Gods (led by Wotan) have had a castle built for them by the giants Fasolt and Fafner. They end up paying them for this castle by stealing the ring from Alberich (who curses the ring before giving it up) and giving it to the giants. Fafner immediately kills Fasolt (per the curse) so he won't have to share its power, and goes into hiding in a cave in the form of a dragon to guard it.
Siegmund and Sieglinde are twins who were separated at birth, and who meet and fall in love. They know they are brother and sister, but they don't care. In a very powerful scene, Siegmund calls to his father (in the form of a couple of really high, loud, and unmercifully long notes) to help him in his time of greatest need. He learns of this sword stuck in an ash tree, that no one has been able to pull out. The sword was put there by Wotan (who fathered the twins with an unnamed mortal woman) for the express purpose of having Siegmund find it, so of course he pulls it right out of the tree. They run away from Sieglinde's husband, Hunding, and make their way into the forest. This makes Fricka (the goddess of marriage, and Wotan's wife, who knows very well of his infidelity) very mad, and she demands that Hunding be allowed to get his revenge on Siegmund. Wotan reluctantly agrees, and, in an amazingly powerful scene, orders his daughter Brünnhilde (a warrior goddess) not to protect Siegmund in the upcoming fight between them. Wotan knows his entire plan has failed, and that his reputation as a god depends on doing the right thing now, even though it will mean his end.
Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund and tells him of his impending death. Siegmund talks her out of this by appealing to her sense of what is right about his and Sieglinde's love, and Brünnhilde is so overcome by his devotion (he will kill Sieglinde before he leaves her alone in the world) that she defies Wotan and tries to protect Siegmund. This doesn't work, because Wotan steps in at the last minute and causes Hunding to win. Wotan chases after Brünnhilde in a rage, and, when he catches her, sentences her to be put into a deep sleep on this rock, surrounded by magic fire so no one but the bravest of heroes can ever get to her. When one does, though, that man will own her, and she'll no longer be a god. The scene where he tells his beloved daughter goodbye is quite wrenching for anyone who's ever had to punish a child.
Brünnhilde had helped Sieglinde escape, though, by telling her that she carried Siegmund's child inside her. Sieglinde became overwhelmed (and this is one of the high points of the Ring, when Sieglinde sings of her newly-discovered unborn son in a way only a mother could understand), and Brünnhilde is already in love with that unborn child, whom she knows will be the one to rescue her from the fate Wotan will give her.
That child is Siegfried, and, when he grows up, we see that he's been raised by a Nibelung named Mime (pronounced "mee-meh"). Mime was one of the Nibelungs who had had to bow down to Alberich's every wish, and he's out for revenge. Sieglinde had managed to make her way to Mime's cave in the forest, had died in childbirth with Siegfried, and Mime had raised the baby for the sole purpose of having him grow up to be a hero who would steal back the ring from Fafner and give it to him! Wotan comes to Mime, though, and, after a game of twenty questions, prophetically informs him that the "one who knows no fear" will kill him. This, of course, is Siegfried.
Mime devises this wonderful scheme whereby Siegfried will need to learn fear and therefore not be able to kill him ("oops, I forgot -- your mother wanted you to learn this before I let you go out into the world by yourself" Uh-huh. Sure.). He takes him out to Fafner's cave in the hope that he will kill the dragon. (He's not afraid of anything, yet, remember? But if anything could do it....) Mime will give then Siegfried a drink to put him to sleep (since he wasn't afraid of the dragon, there's no way he could have gotten killed), then he'll kill him and take the then-unguarded ring. The only problem is, when Siegfried kills the dragon, some of the blood gets on his hand. When he sucks it off, all of a sudden he can understand the song of the birds. One bird happens to tell Siegfried about how Mime is planning to kill him, and after a wonderful scene in which Mime keeps saying what is really on his mind ("No, that's not what I meant! I just want to cut your head off, my dear!"), Mime is the one who ends up dying. Siegfried takes the ring, knowing nothing of its power, and then the bird leads him to Brünnhilde, still on her rock. Siegfried sees her in her armor on the rock, completely forgets why he's there, mistakes her for a man, then realizes she's actually the first woman he's ever seen. He then feels what fear feels like. (on seeing a woman for the first time -- he definitely knows how to pick what to be truly afraid of!) Siegfried wakes her up, gives her the ring, and they fall in love in a spectacular scene with lots of high "C"s.
There happens to be this man, Hagen, who wants the ring for himself. He is Alberich's son, and feels it's time the Nibelungs were back in control of the ring. He convinces his half-brother Gunther to become friends with Siegfried so he can give Siegfried a magic potion that will make him forget about Brünnhilde. Then, Gunther will be able to marry Brünnhilde after they kill Siegfried, and the Nibelungs will have everything back. They succeed, and kill Siegfried. The only problem is, Brünnhilde sees through the whole thing at the last minute, and understands that the only way the curse of the ring will ever be ended is by returning it to the Rhinemaidens and reaffirming the power of love to all the world.
Brünnhilde has been the only one in the whole Ring who is completely motivated by love in everything she does, and, since the renunciation of love was what it took to give the ring its power in the first place, she's the one (as the personification of pure love) who will have to be sacrificed in order to restore balance to the world and save everyone. During Siegfried's funeral, she rides her horse triumphantly into the huge fire where his body is, and the redemption begins. The Rhine river floods the whole stage, the Rhinemaidens get their ring back, all the bad guys die, and the gods' castle burns to the ground. The curse of the ring is over, and love has saved the world.
© 1999 Dan McGlaun