The ring that the Nibelung Alberich made using the Rhinegold that grants infinite power has wound up in the possession of the giant Fafner. In the shape of an immense dragon, Fafner guards the ring together with the Nibelung treasure in a cave in the midst of a remote forest. Both the god Wotan as well as the Nibelung Alberich seek claim to the ring. Alberich, although he had renounced love in order to make the ring, he has had a son and hopes to reclaim the ring with him. Wotan, on the other hand, has tried to protect his position of power from the danger posed by Alberich in two ways. First, the nine Valkyries that the omniscient goddess Erda has borne are in the process of assembling the bodies and souls of fallen warriors at Walhalla Castle, where they will be able to support Wotan against Alberich’s army. In addition, he has created a “free hero” who can act independently of the contracts that bind Wotan and can reclaim the ring for the god. As “Wälse,” Wotan fathered the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde; separated as children, the twins now meet again.
Inside Hunding’s dwelling
During a fierce storm, the wounded Siegmund seeks refuge in a dwelling erected around an immense ash tree. Thoroughly exhausted, he sinks down before the hearth. Sieglinde notices the unarmed man and gives him something to drink. A close bond immediately develops between the two of them. Nonetheless, after he has regained his strength, Siegmund wants to leave the dwelling, but is held back by Sieglinde. Sieglinde’s husband Hunding appears. Suspicious, he asks the stranger his name and his origin. Listening to Siegmund’s tale, he deduces that this is the very man that he has been pursuing with his men. He allows him to stay as guest for one night, but challenges him to a duel the next morning. After Hunding and Sieglinde have left the hall, Siegmund reflects on his position, falling unarmed into the hands of the enemy. He remembers that his father Wälse had promised him a sword at the time of his direst need. In the trunk of the ash tree, he spies a weapon that has been plunged up to the shaft. Sieglinde arrives; she has given Hunding a sleeping potion. She implores Siegmund to depart quickly, but he still longs for Sieglinde’s company. Sieglinde reports to the stranger, who at first has claimed to be “Wehwalt,” of her unhappy wedding and of the secretive old man, who showed up at the celebration, pushing a sword into the ash tree before all the guests. He had then proclaimed that the one able to remove the sword from the tree trunk could call it his own. Until now, no one has succeeded; Sieglinde believes that this fascinating stranger will succeed. Suddenly, the door springs open – in a moment full of magic, spring has broken out. Siegmund and Sieglinde acknowledge their love for one another. Siegmund now admits his true name: as the son of Wälse, he is destined to remove the sword Nothung from the ash tree. Sieglinde reveals to him that she is his twin sister, long thought lost. Together, they run outside.
In a mountain wilderness
Wotan, who is aware of what has happened, encourages his favorite daughter Brünnhilde to take Siegmund’s side against Hunding and to help the Wälsung to victory. His wife Fricka, however, changes his mind: she makes it clear to him that Siegmund is by no means acting on his own free will, but entirely according to Wotan’s wishes. Deeply concerned about the survival of the gods, she insists that Wotan promise not to protect Siegmund in battle; he is to die at the hands of Hunding. After Fricka’s departure, Wotan becomes aware of his situation: he has become caught up in an inescapable web of dependencies, constraints, and desires. In a great tale, he tells Brünnhilde of his thoughts and deeds, of the Ring of the Nibelungs, and the threat of the gods’ demise. He does not see any alternative but to give in to Fricka’s desire. Brünnhilde is given strict instructions to fight for Hunding, otherwise she would feel his wrath. Brünnhilde remains behind, sad and contemplative. Siegmund appears with Sieglinde: for many hours now they have been fleeing from Hunding. Since Sieglinde is obviously not able to continue, Siegmund decides to await Hunding for battle. Brünnhilde announces his coming death – like other heroes, she will bring him to Walhalla. When Siegmund learns that he will not meet Sieglinde there, he refuses his fate: he would rather sacrifice himself and his sister than to be separated from her.Touched by Siegmund’s deep love for Sieglinde, Brünnhilde decides to act against Wotan’s order: the two Wälsungen are to survive. Hunding’s horn can be heard from a distance. He has pursued Siegmund and Sieglinde and is now ready for battle. Brünnhilde supports Siegmund, whose sword Nothung is shattered by the spear of Wotan, who has suddenly appeared. Siegmund is slain by Hunding, who in turn falls to the ground at a mere sign from Wotan. Immediately after the battle, Brünhilde flees with Sieglinde. Wotan rushes to follow her in order to punish her for her misdeeds.
On a mountain summit
The Valkyries assemble to bring all heroes killed in battle to Walhalla. Brünnhilde appears last. She pleads with her sisters to protect her and Sieglinde from the wrath of Wotan, but to no avail. Since none of the Valkyries are ready to help them escape, Brünnhilde sends Sieglinde alone to the east, telling her that in the dark forest where the dragon Fafner dwells, she is secure from Wotan. Sieglinde gathers new courage when she learns from Brünnhilde that she is to give birth to the “bravest hero in the world.” Brünnhilde faces the fury of Wotan, who has now reached the lair of the Valkyries. She is to pay for her disobedience by losing her divinity. In addition, she is to remain on the rock in a deep sleep, easy prey for all the men who pass by. Horrified, the eight Valkyries leave Wotan and Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde urgently pleads with her father to alter his decision. She makes it clear to him that he has been forced against his original will by Fricka and external constraints to not stand by Siegmund. Wotan’s fury gives way to a deep felt sympathy for Brünnhilde: moved, he takes leave of her. Wotan puts her to sleep, but surrounds her with a ring of fire that can only be crossed by those who do not fear his spear.