The 'Ring' plot

January 09, 1994|By Stephen Wigler

Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle -- the full name of th four-opera cycle is "Der Ring des Nibelungen" ("The Nibelung's Ring") -- is the most ambitious work of opera and/or drama ever written. It purports to tell the story of how our world came to be as it is.

Odin, the king of the gods, makes a fatal mistake when he offers his sister-in-law Freia to two giant brothers as recompense for building his castle, Valhalla. But he can't bear to part with his sister and he offers them instead a golden ring of power. The ring gives whoever wears it power over all things. The problem is that Odin doesn't own the ring.

It's owned by the dwarf or nibelung, Alberich, who stole the gold with which he made the ring from the Rhine Maidens. But he was only able to do that by forswearing love. Odin, in turn, steals the ring from Alberich and gives it to the giants. But that act of thievery puts a curse on the ring -- it now only brings destruction to whoever wears it -- and one of the giants immediately kills the other.

The rest of the cycle follows Odin and his brood of legitimate children (gods and goddesses) and bastards (human heroes) as gods and men fight over possession of the ring. It's an allegory about how the love of gold and power perverts normal human desires.

The cycle ends with "Gotterdammerung" ("The Twilight of the Gods"), which is literally a holocaust in which heaven and earth are set on fire and destroyed, and the Rhine River floods the earth. But if the old order is destroyed by its greed, the opera ends on a note of hope: Perhaps the fire and flood will be a ritual cleansing that will offer the possibility for a better world.

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