The performance of the opera seria “Ariadne auf Naxos” is being prepared in the house of the “richest man in Vienna”. It was announced that this was to be followed by a cheerful sequel with dances, which will be performed by Zerbinetta and her four partners Harlequin, Brighella, Scaramuccio and Truffaldin. The composer of the opera feels mocked as an artist, but his music teacher admonishes him to accept the whims of his client in order not to lose his fee. Shortly before the performance begins, the steward appears with the latest instructions from his master: The opera seria and the opera buffa should be given at the same time, and the whole piece should only last an hour, because after that the fireworks for the guests should start on time. The composer would rather see his work destroyed, the music teacher advises cuts to save it, the dance master appeals to the improvisational skills of the comedians. The composer accepts this only reluctantly. The fascinating encounter with Zerbinetta, however, allows the composer to see everything with different eyes and to conjure up the "sacred art of music" anew.
The nymphs Najad, Dryad and Echo regret Ariadne, who was abandoned by her only beloved Theseus on the desert island of Naxos. Ariadne, in lifeless numbness, constantly complains about the hopelessness of her existence and only waits longingly for Hermes, the messenger of death. Zerbinetta and her teammates try to cheer Ariadne and convince her of the power of oblivion and transformation. They teach her a playful art of love: love has innumerable faces. Ariadne, however, cannot be changed. She insists on her being fixated.
Finally a god is called to rescue: Bacchus. The encounter between Ariadne and Bacchus appears to be an incessant illusion. Bacchus believes that he sees Circe, whom he has just escaped, in her, while Ariadne takes him first for Theseus, then for Hermes, the messenger of death. Listening to the singing, Ariadne falls into the maelstrom of the dark drifting god Bacchus. Guided by his song, she is finally able to enter the long-awaited realm of death. This is how the composer's words come true: »She means she is dying! No, she really is dying. "