A rich man of the town is giving a party. He has ordered a sumptuous banquet with fireworks and a surprise for his guests – a performance of the opera Ariadne auf Naxos. The master of the house has commissioned it from a young composer engaged famous singers for the premiere.
During the final preparations the musicians learn by chance that after the premiere the same stage will host a performance by a lowbrow troupe of comedians led by the capricious dancer Zerbinetta. The musicians are incensed at this coupling and the composer himself feels that his work will be degraded.
Just before the opera begins, however, the capricious patron’s servant announces that his master has changed his plans yet again: now he wants both the tragic opera and the buffonade to be performed simultaneously. The musicians are perplexed as to how this can be achieved.
Zerbinetta and her troupe are not at all perturbed by this. They are used to improvising on the stage. The young composer, however, is as dark as a thundercloud. Ultimately he is forced to agree to an abridged performance of his opus. At this difficult time he finds consolation in Zerbinetta: after a heated dispute about romantic love she sets her cap at him. However, when he sees that his work has been transformed into a vulgar comedy the composer despairs once more.
Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, is unable to find relief from her woes. Her beloved Theseus has abandoned her on a barren island. Her laments are heard only by the woodland and water nymphs Dryad and Naiad and the mountain nymph Echo. At this point Zerbinetta comes onstage with her comedians and turns the production upside down; forgetting all about the plot, all begin to improvise.
Zerbinetta tells Ariadne the story of her own love and says that the pain over a lost love is always replaced by the thrill of a new one. Ariadne, however, makes no response. She continues to wait for Hermes, the herald of death. Suddenly the nymphs notice the young god Bacchus, who has just escaped unharmed from the clutches of the sorceress Circe who attempted to transform him into a beast.
Ariadne is convinced that she is face to face with the long-awaited god of death, while Bacchus, initially thinking her to be another sorceress, falls passionately in love with her. His love helps Ariadne to forget her grief and gain happiness once more.