In the house of a rich man, preparations are in progress for the performance of a new opera seria, “Ariadne auf Naxos. The Manager of the Ranch enters to inform the Agent that immediately after the opera an Italian comedy will be performed, followed by a fireworks display in the garden. The outraged Agent replies that the composer, his young pupil, will never tolerate that, but the Manager of the Ranch is unimpressed by his objections and leaves. When the Composer appears, hoping for a last minute rehearsal, a disdainful Ranch-hand tells her that the musicians are still playing dinner music. Suddenly the Tenor rushes from his dressing room, arguing with the Wig Maker. The Prima Donna furiously comments on the presence of the comedy troupe and their leading lady, Zerbinetta. In the middle of the confusion, the Manager of the Ranch returns with an announcement: in order for the fireworks to begin on time, the opera and the comedy are to be performed simultaneously.
General consternation soon gives way to practical reactions. The Dance Caption suggests cutting the opera’s score. The Agent persuades the despairing Composer to do so, while the two lead singers independently urge him to abridge the other’s part. Meanwhile, Zerbinetta gives her troupe a briefing on the opera’s plot. Ariadne, they are told, has been abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos, where she now waits for death. Zerbinetta, however, claims that all Ariadne really needs is a new lover. When the Composer vehemently disagrees, Zerbinetta begins to flirt with her. Suddenly the young lady finds new hope. Filled with love and enthusiasm for her work, she passionately declares music the greatest of all the arts. But when she catches sight of the comedians, ready to go on stage, she realizes with horror what she has agreed to. She blames the Agent for the artistic debacle and runs off.
Intermission 25 Minutes
The Ariadne myth tells how Prince Theseus of Athens set out for Crete to kill the Minotaur, a creature half man, half bull, who was concealed in a labyrinth. Princess Ariadne of Crete fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of thread that enabled him to find his way out of the labyrinth after he had killed the Minotaur. When Theseus left Crete, he took Ariadne with him as his bride. During their voyage home they stopped at the island of Naxos. While Ariadne was asleep, Theseus slipped away and continued his journey to Athens without her. The opera Ariadne auf Naxos begins at this point.
Ariadne is alone in front of her cave. Three nymphs look on and lament her fate. Watching from the wings, the comedians are doubtful whether they will be able to cheer her up. Ariadne recalls her love for Theseus (“Ein Schönes war”), then imagines herself as a chaste girl, awaiting death. Harlequin tries to divert her with a song (“Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen”) but Ariadne ignores him. As if in a trance, she resolves to await Hermes, messenger of death. He will take her to another world where everything is pure (“Es gibt ein Reich”). When the comedians’ efforts continue to fail, Zerbinetta finally addresses Ariadne directly (“Grossmächtige Prinzessin!”), woman to woman, explaining to her the human need to change an old love for a new. Insulated, Ariadne leaves. After Zerbinetta has finished her speech, her colleagues leap back onto the scene, competing for her attention. Zerbinetta gives in to Harlequin’s comic protestations of love and the comedians exit.
The nymphs announce the approach of a ship: it carries the young god Bacchus, who has escaped the enchantress Circe. Bacchus’s voice is heard in the distance (“Circe, kannst du mich hören?”) and Ariadne prepares to greet her visitor, whom she thinks must be death at last. When he appears, she at first mistakes him for Theseus, but he majestically proclaims his godhood. Entranced by her beauty, Bacchus tells her he would sooner see the stars vanish than give her up. Reconciled to a new existence, Ariadne joins Bacchus as they ascend to the heavens. Zerbinetta sneaks in to have the last word: “When a new god comes along, we’re dumbstruck.”