At the bottom of the Rhine River. The three Rhine Maidens guard the golden hoard lying at its depths, a treasure that would grant exorbitant powers to anyone who forges a ring with it. The Nibelung gnome Alberich approaches the Rhine Daughters and tries to convince one of them to join in a bit of lovemaking. They each pretend to fall for his charms, but then withdraw from him one after another. Teased and insulted by the Rhine Maidens, Alberich becomes enraged.
When the light of the sunrise beams down upon it, the Rhine gold begins to glow. The Rhine Maidens reveal to Alberich the special thing about this treasure: only he who renounces love can make a ring using this gold. Surely, they argue, that’s unimaginable in Alberich’s case. The Nibelung, however, does indeed renounce all love, seizes the gold and disappears down into the depths. The Rhine Maidens pursue him, but with no success.
A plateau along the Rhine River. With the dawn of the new day, Valhalla Castle is revealed, a fortress built for the gods. Fricka awakens her sleeping husband Wotan, who is overwhelmed by the sight of Valhalla. But the goddess is concerned about the price that had been negotiated with the castle builders, the giants Fasolt and Fafner. As payment for their labors, they were promised Freia, the goddess of youth. Pursued by the giants, Freia arrives to seek protection from her brothers Donner and Froh. Fasolt demands that Wotan keep his agreement and hand over Freia. When he refuses, the giants threaten to take Freia by force, and thus to doom the gods to their demise, for the golden apples to which Freia attends insure their eternal youth.
Wotan places all his hopes in Loge to find a solution to the conflict. The eagerly awaited demigod appears, but can only ease the situation to a certain extent. He reports that Alberich has stolen the Rhine Gold to make a ring that would give him the greatest power and influence. Alberich, Loge continues, now has such a ring, for he has renounced love. As a replacement for Freia, the giants would accept the Nibelung’s Gold. But Wotan too wants to win the ring for himself, while Loge wants to fulfil the Rhine Maidens wish and return the gold to the Rhine. The giants take Freia hostage: if the Rhine Gold is not brought as her ransom by that evening, the goddess would remain forever under their power. Without Freia’s apples, the gods immediately begin to age noticeably. Wotan makes the decision to descend to Nibelheim with Loge to steal the ring from Alberich.
In the depths of Nibelheim. With the help of the magic power that he gained from the ring, Alberich was able to achieve absolute domination over the Nibelungs. He made his brother Mime forge a “Tarnhelm“ for him, a helmet that makes him invisible or allows him to take on another form, thus protecting him from thieves. Wotan and Loge observe how Alberich has brutally enslaved the Nibelungs. They learn that he wants to use the great treasures of gold that his workers have mined to conquer the world from Nibelheim. Loge tricks Alberich to show him how the Tarnhelm works: first, he transforms into a huge worm, then into a toad. Alberich is then overcome by Wotan and Loge and brought to the earth’s surface in chains.
A high plateau, as in Scene 2. To achieve his freedom, Alberich must get the Nibelung treasure as his ransom. In addition, Wotan demands the Tarnhelm and the ring. But Alberich refuses to hand them over: Wotan takes it by force. Freed of his chains, Alberich curses the ring: whoever wears it is doomed to death; only when he again has it in his hands would the curse lose its force. The giants return Freia. Saddened by her loss, the Nibelung treasure is to be piled up in the shape of the goddess. To cover the remaining gaps, Fafner and Fasolt demand first the Tarnhelm, and then the ring. Like Alberich earlier, Wotan now refuses to hand over the ring. Only Erda, who suddenly appears and prophesies the gods demise, is able to convince him: he gives the ring to the giants. Alberich’s curse is fulfilled immediately: in fighting over the treasure, Fafner kills his brother Fasolt. Fafner carries off the treasure, the Tarnhelm, and the ring. Fricka now encourages Wotan, who is sunken in worries, to take residence with her and the other gods Valhalla. Donner creates a storm, and Froh makes a rainbow that serves as a bridge to the castle. From the depths, Wotan can hear the Rhine Daughters lamenting the lost gold. Loge, who sees the gods rushing toward their demise, tries to distance himself, but at Wotan’s insistence joins in scoffing at the Rhine Maidens. Proudly, the gods march toward Valhalla.