History with a Twist: Donizetti's 'Roberto Devereux'

Overview
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The opera opens with an overture featuring the tune of "God Save the Queen." As the action begins, Roberto Devereux has just returned to England from a military debacle in Ireland, and he's accused of treason -- which also happened in real life. In the opera, his predicament is further complicated by the Queen, who's in love with him.

But now, Elizabeth is worried that Devereux is falling for someone else. And she's right. His new love is a woman named Sara. But while Devereux was in Ireland, Sara was forced into a marriage of convenience, with the Duke of Nottingham -- Devereux's best friend.

In a private meeting with the Queen, Devereux is surprised to find that she still feels tenderly for him. Thinking he can confide in her, he begins to admit that he's now in love with someone else -- and then, as he sees her anger building, he tries to take it back. The Queen warns him that betraying her could have dangerous consequences.

With the Queen viewing him suspiciously, Devereux now faces his trial for treason with only one ally -- the Duke of Nottingham. But he still can't resist a secret, late night meeting with Sara. When they're alone together, they both acknowledge that they can never meet again.

As they say goodbye, the two exchange gifts, as tokens of their affection. Sara gives Devereux a blue scarf, embroidered with a message of love. And to prove his devotion to Sara, and not Elizabeth, Devereux produces a ring that he received from the Queen -- who also told him to send it back to her if he ever found himself in danger.

In ACT TWO Parliament is debating Devereux's case. Rumors have it that he'll be found guilty -- and the rumors prove correct. Lord Cecil goes to Queen Elizabeth with the ruling: Devereux has been convicted and sentenced to die. All that's left is for Elizabeth to finalize things by signing the death warrant.

Given the Queen's feelings for Devereux, she might be expected to hesitate. But her spies now present evidence that Devereux has been involved with another woman. When Devereux was arrested, he had a blue scarf, embroidered with a message of love. Elizabeth doesn't know who gave him the scarf, but the message proves her suspicions.

Nottingham then arrives, to plead for Devereux's life. He's appalled when it seems the Queen is about to condemn Devereux not for his crimes, but out of jealousy. But when Devereux is brought in, Elizabeth confronts him with her evidence -- the blue scarf -- and demands to know who gave it to him. Looking on, Nottingham recognizes the scarf as belonging to his own wife, Sara. Humiliated, he doesn't admit what he knows. During a dramatic trio, Elizabeth is furious, Nottingham is humiliated, and Devereux knows that he's doomed -- as the Queen signs his death sentence.

As ACT THREE opens, Devereux thinks he might have one last chance to save his life. Sara still has the ring the Queen had given Devereux as a token of her love, with the instruction to return it should he find himself in trouble. So he sends Sara a desperate letter, asking her to take the ring to Elizabeth -- hoping the reminder of their old feelings will prompt the Queen to pardon him.

Sara receives the message, but before she can leave, Nottingham confronts her. He also discovers Devereux's letter -- more evidence of her infidelity -- and orders her not to see the Queen.

As Devereux is led to his execution, he reflects on his past with regret -- seeing a lifetime of lies and indiscretion. Yet he still hopes that Elizabeth will receive the ring, and spare him. Elizabeth is having similar thoughts. She remembers the ring, and hopes that Devereux will send it to her as a sign of his renewed devotion.

Before long, the ring does arrive. Sara has managed to reach the Queen after all, with Nottingham close behind. Sara presents the ring to Elizabeth, but it's too late. A cannon shot is heard, announcing Devereux's execution. Nottingham declares that he's the one who prevented Sara from reaching the Queen in time, and Elizabeth has them both arrested -- blaming them for Devereux's death.

But it's all too much for Elizabeth. She breaks down, seeing visions of a headless Devereux. Realizing that she's no longer a worthy Queen, she gives up her throne as the opera ends.