The trouble with most contemporary opera is that it deprives us of the old fashioned simple values - memorable tunes, colorful characters, clear dramatic structure - without giving us back in return anything particularly worth having. A few masters - Stravinsky, Berg, Britten and a few others - have managed to turn the fragmentary, dissonant musical idioms of the 20th Century to theatrical advantage. Most other composers seem to be defeated at the outset by the anti-lyrical nature of the materials they choose to work with.

Thea Musgrave's "The Voice of Ariadne," which had its American premiere at Lincoln Center Friday night in a production by the New York City Opera, is a case in point. The emotions of the listener are held persistently at bay by an abstruse text and a melodically amorphous score, despite the obvious technical competence of the composer.

Amalia Elguera's boretto is loosely based on a story by Henry James, "The Last of the Valeni" set in Rome around 1870. An Italian nobleman, Count Marco Valrio, unearths on his villa grounds the pedestal of a statue of Adriadne, the legendary princess abandoned by her lover Theseus on the isle of Naxos (long a popular subject in operatic history). The Count's burgeoning obsession with Adriadne leads to an increasing neglect of his rich American wife. The couple is reconciled in the end, however, when the Count experiences a thoroughly unconvicting and inexplicable change of heart.

Some ancillary characters provide touches of amorous rivalry and comic relief.

The Scottish born Musgrave, presently residing in this country with her American husband, violist-conductor Peter Mark, is a prolific composer of considerable repute. The "Ariadne" score confirms her superior craftsmanship and resourcefulness. At the same time, though, it fails to come to grips with dramatic essentials.

The vocals parts are reasonably singable but devoid of individual contour. The electric, non-impressionist orchestral writing is effective in terms of atmospheric suggestion but almost entirely lacking in dramatic contrast.

The cast, however, was excellent in all respects. Particularly impressive was young Virginia soprano Cynthia Clarey, whose fluent singing and unaffected characterization went a long way toward making the Countess a credible, sympathetic creature despite the shortcomings of the score.

The other singers, all splendidly capable were David Holloway, as the Count; Joan Davies, heard (on tape) but not seen, as the voice of Ariadne; and Sandra Walker, Frances Bible, Thomas Jamerson, David Griffith, Richard Gill, and Melvin Lowery. The composer herself led the orchestra with brisk, careful authority.