Wagner wrote the librettos for the four Ring operas in reverse order. The music, however, was composed in the correct sequence. Das Rheingold lays the foundation for the long slog ahead. As it’s all in one act, allowing no chance for a bathroom break, it lasts only 2 hours and 20 minutes, give or take a bit depending on who’s waving the baton.
Wagner considered the work as prologue for the three succeeding operas. Basically, Rheingold sets in motion the disastrous consequences of buying more house than you can afford, of incurring a debt that you cannot hope to pay off, and contracting with a builder whose price is fluid. It can be seen as a metaphor for the world’s current economic malaise. If Wotan had settled for an ordinary McMansion the three remaining operas would have been superfluous. But the king of the gods insisted on bringing the whole family along and housing them in more than splendid surroundings, thus setting in motion the three bladder busters that followed.
The finale of the opera, The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, depicts the grandeur of taking possession of overpriced digs as well as the apprehension engendered by the realization that there’s a huge mortgage hanging over the place that contains a lot of killer clauses. But at least for the moment things are grand.
This excerpt is from a 1990 performance with James Morris as Wotan and the late James Levine conducting the Met orchestra.