Setting: a mansion in the city
Preparations are being made for the evening’s entertainment. A nameless wealthy man has arranged for two performances to entertain his guests – a new opera seria, based on the Greek legend of Ariadne, to be principally sung by the Prima Donna and the Tenor, and an opera buffa to be given by a commedia dell’arte troupe, led by Zerbinetta. The evening will conclude with a brilliant display of fireworks, given promptly at 9:00.
Behind the scenes, the Music Master confers with the Major Domo regarding the upcoming events and learns of the double-bill. His protégé, the young, nameless composer of the serious opera, will never allow it. The Major Domo is indignant – the fee will be paid as contracted, and it is to be decided by his benefactor as to how the spectacular night shall unfold.
The Composer nervously requests some last-minute rehearsal time with the players and the Prima Donna, which is denied. The Tenor emerges from his dressing room, angered by the Wigmaker’s incompetence in properly dressing his bald pate. Also preparing for her performance, Zerbinetta is frustrated that her comic antics must follow the tedious work – no one will be in the mood for laughter at that point. For his part, the Composer is still vexed by the inclusion of the lowbrow, decadent drama with his magnificent opus. He laments that such patronage should enslave him, and his teacher reminds him that what cannot be cured must be endured.
The Prima Donna and Zerbinetta exchange disgusted looks. How could they possibly be scheduled to perform on the same stage in a single evening? The Music Master and Dancing Master, who coaches Zerbinetta’s movements, also express their opinions. The various members of the two ensembles – the four comedians: Harlequin, Brighella, Scaramuccio and Truffaldino, and the three nymphs: Naiad, Dryad and Echo – join the entourage as it is announced that the Count has now decided the two works will be performed as a single piece. The Major-Domo disdainfully remarks that an opera set on a remote island would not enhance the grandeur of his Lordship’s place. The Composer is crushed – the vulgarity of the commedia troupe will ruin the aesthetics of his piece, and he refuses any alterations to his score. The Dancing Master differs – the wearisome pages will be enlivened by his artists’ improvisatory skills. History has seen young creators make these sacrifices.
The Dancing Master informs Zerbinetta of the basic plot, while the Music Master mediates between the Prima Donna and the Tenor, each of whom has ideas about trimming each other’s parts. Zerbinetta challenges the solemnity of Ariadne’s plight – abandoned on Naxos by her former lover, the heroic Minotaur-slayer, Theseus (who is indebted to her for assistance), she surrenders herself to death. No woman would devote her heart with such conviction, and Zerbinetta believes her company can bring life to the jilted tragedienne. The Composer is beside himself with frustration, yet Zerbinetta’s coquettish manner begins to beguile him. Yet, he still pontificates on the values of music and is offended by the presence of the base comedians.
Portrayed by the Prima Donna, Ariadne reclines at the opening of a grotto, while the three nymphs observe her grief-stricken predicament. She is forever anguished by Theseus’ desertion. The Harlequinade also comments on her sorrow and, in adherence to the present theatrical compromise, Zerbinetta believes that music is the cure. Harlequin sings a song as Echo repeats the melody. The four men try to enliven Ariadne’s mood with a dance, while Zerbinetta attempts to cheer her with some womanly advice concerning matters of love – constancy of the heart is never certain and deception can be a worthy weapon. Moved by her speech, Harlequin attempts to seduce Zerbinetta, to no avail. The other three maskers do the same, and then they all break out into another jig.
Dryad, Naiad and Echo rush onstage with breaking news – a youthful god, Bacchus (played by the Tenor), has arrived, having recently escaped from the clutches of the contemptible siren, Circe. On the brink of death, Ariadne is suddenly cheered by the sweetness of his voice. He is, in turn, enthralled by her beauty, and they immediately fall in love, putting an end to their recent trials. Zerbinetta ruefully comments that all she needed was to be wooed by another lover.