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Composed: 1854

Length: c. 150 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns (5th and 6th=tenor Wagner tubas, 7th and 8th=bass Wagner tubas), 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, contrabass trombone, tuba, 2 timpani, percussion (anvils, cymbals, hammer, tam-tam, triangle), 7 harps, strings, and vocal soloists

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla”: December 5, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting; Finale: September 8, 1922, Alfred Hertz conducting

About this Piece

Creation Celebrations

In fashioning his vast Ring cycle, Richard Wagner worked backward, from destruction to creation. The seeds of the saga bubble up from the depths of the Rhine River, as Wagner introduces us to major elements of the narrative arc (people and places, symbols and story) and their manifestation in sweeping music of vast psychological power. This production celebrates architect Frank Gehry and the creation of Walt Disney Concert Hall, with scenic design by the master himself. —John Henken


Das Rheingold unfolds in an orchestral prelude and four scenes, traditionally presented without intermission. Wagner called this first opera of the Ring cycle a “Fore-Evening” to the three operas that follow (Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung). Here we meet many of the major characters, engaged in a fierce struggle for a magic golden ring. The action occurs in three locations, set in timeless mythological prehistory: the bottom of the Rhine River (Prelude and Scene 1); an open space on a mountain height near the Rhine (Scenes 2 and 4); and the subterranean caves of the underworld kingdom of Nibelheim, abode of the Nibelungs (Scene 3), ruled by the malevolent dwarf Alberich.

Prelude and Scene 1
The music of the prelude depicts the Rhine’s flowing waters. Here reside Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde, nymphs guarding a priceless treasure, the Rhinegold. They sing and frolic until Alberich arrives, then mock his attempts to seduce them. A brightening glow shines from above—the Rhinegold. The Rhinemaidens unwisely tell Alberich that a ring can be forged from the gold, bestowing unlimited power on its wearer. But only one who foreswears love can obtain the treasure. Stung by rejection and lusting for power, Alberich renounces love, tears the gold from its resting place, and dives deep, laughing at the Rhinemaidens’ cries for help.

Scene 2
Wotan and Fricka awaken. In the distance, they admire their new home, a magnificent castle (Valhalla) built by the giants Fasolt and Fafner, who have been promised Fricka’s sister Freia as payment. But since Freia supplies the golden apples that ensure the gods’ eternal youth, Wotan reconsiders. When the fire god Loge arrives and describes Alberich’s theft of the gold, now forged into a ring, Wotan vows to seize it as alternative payment for the giants. They take Freia away as ransom, and the gods begin to lose their youthful strength.

Scene 3
In the depths of Nibelheim, Alberich abuses the enslaved Nibelungs, including his brother Mime, whom he forces to create a magic helmet, the Tarnhelm. Wotan and Loge arrive and learn that the helmet can transform its wearer into various shapes. They trick Alberich into turning himself into a toad and take him captive, ascending to the upper world.

Scene 4
Wotan and Loge order Alberich to present his golden treasure to the sky gods. He complies, but greedy Wotan wants more: He wrests the magic ring from Alberich’s finger and puts it on his own. Before Alberich leaves, he places a curse on the ring that dooms anyone who possesses or desires it.

Fasolt and Fafner return with Freia. They demand not only the pile of gold, but the ring as well. Wotan reluctantly agrees after the earth goddess Erda warns him that the ring will bring the gods’ demise. Freia is freed, but Fafner kills Fasolt as they fight over the cursed ring. After a tremendous storm summoned by Donner and Froh, the gods proceed across a rainbow bridge to Valhalla. Loge warns that they are walking to their doom. The trumpet announces a new motif: a sword that will ensure the future for Wotan and the gods. From the river below, the Rhinemaidens lament the loss of their gold in a reprise of their music from the opera’s opening. —Harlow Robinson