commissioned by the Royal Opera House with assistance from the Gulbenkian Foundation
Soprano, Mezzo soprano, Contralto, 2 Tenors, Baritone, Bass baritone, Bass
Count Marco Valerio and his recently married American wife invite a group of friends to witness the excavation of an antique statue on the grounds of their villa in Rome. But instead of a complete statue only a single broken-off hand and a pedestal are revealed – the pedestal carries an inscription in Greek to Ariadne. When the Count’s excitement at the prospect of the discovery yields to disappointment and depression, he thinks he hears a voice addressing him as Theseus, urging him to return to Ariadne whom, in the legend, he abandoned on the island of Naxos. The Count’s forsaken wife identifies with Ariadne and gives up her claim on her husband. Her own self-sacrifice enables him to emerge from his delusions.
In the garden of the Villa Valeri, on a summer night, old Gualtiero the gardener, and the young manservant Giovanni, wait for their master Count Valerio, his young American wife, the Countess, and their guests. Their exuberant and beautiful mistress has summoned friends to celebrate the unearthing of an ancient statue which has been legendary to generations of the Valeri Counts. The Countess arrives with her guests, who exhibit banal and comic reactions to their surroundings and to one another. When the Count finally appears, the group hears Gualtiero describe the statue's enthralling legend:
The guests anticipate the discovery by conjecturing the identity of the goddess whose likeness they will soon view. But the gardeners only uncover an empty pedestal, which does not bear a divine inscription, but the name of a mythical woman, Ariadne. Disappointed, the Countess and her guests leave, and the Count remains alone with the pedestal and to observe it in the moonlight. He is about to join the guests when he hears a distant voice: “It is I who call,/Ariadne. ....Theseus,/Return and find me”.
In the villa, the Countess bids her guests goodnight. She worries about her husband's disappointment. She exits. The Count brooding and impatient, looks up the history of Theseus and Ariadne in his library. He ponders Ariadne's desperation as she waits in vain for Theseus' return. Suddenly the Count again hears Ariadne's voice calling out to him.
Some days later, in a secluded spot in a public park, Gualtiero meets the Marchesa Bianca Bianchi, who questions him about a rumoured rift between the Count and the Countess. With the reverence with which the aged regard legend, Gualtiero declares that the Count has fallen in love with Ariadne, whose voice he hears calling him. Bianca, selfishly happy for any estrangement between the Count and Countess, mocks the old man's story. He is shocked by her sacrilege and convinces her to meet him in the garden that evening to witness the Count's transformation. She is deterred from leaving by Baldovino who tells her of his infatuation with Mrs Tracy. Mrs Tracy arrives and turns a deaf ear to his protestations. Then the Countess enters, looking for her husband. Bianca offers advice, but the Countess is instinctively wary of her. As the others leave, a sudden terror seizes the Countess. She sings of her isolation and the sea - words which could have come from the lips of Ariadne. Shaken she invokes the memory of love that she once shared with her husband.
In an antechamber of the villa, Gualtiero chides the Count that the Gods who govern the secrets of the statue, demand from him a sacrifice - "From your own hand, a drop of your noble blood". Then he can elicit their help in finding the elusive Ariadne. Giovanni rushes in to announce that the Countess, absent since early morning, has been found wandering the streets in a daze. Now she enters and begs her husband to give up his fascination with the pedestal. His refusal to do this gives credence to Bianca's claim that the Count is indeed in love with another woman. Her charge inspires his contempt and he exits angrily. Mr Lamb appears at the door, and witnessing her desperation consoles her. In advising her to love the Count by allowing him to love where he will, Mr Lamb implies his own secret love for the Countess.
In the garden that evening, Count Valerio invokes the ancient gods, and in an act of sacrifice, draws his own blood. Mr Lamb comes upon the scene, and is appalled by the extreme to which the Count's obsession has carried him. The Count is angered by the intrusion. Bianca then enters to keep her appointment with Gualtiero. Mrs Tracy followed by Baldovino also enter. The Count enraged by this further interruption repulses them all. The confusion is abruptly silenced by a distant voice - in the Count's ears the voice of Ariadne and the new voice vie, the former finally fading under the clarity of the latter. As they party describes the images the new voice invokes, they realize they are hearing the Countess. She is calling to Ariadne to find her husband and fulfill his love. The Count sees his wife with new eyes, and realizes he has found his Ariadne. Her selfless devotion inspires a newly awakened love. The others absorbed in their own thoughts drift away and the two lovers sing of the hope and freedom that they have won together.