Roberto Devereux Synopsis

The Story of Donizetti's Tragic Opera

Montserrat Caballe performs as Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti's opera, Roberto Devereux. This tragic opera tells the story of love and betrayal in the royal court. It is a very loose adaption of real life events that transpired during Queen Elizabeth I's reign.
Montserrat Caballe performs as Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti's opera, Roberto Devereux. This tragic opera tells the story of love and betrayal in the royal court. It is a very loose adaption of real life events that transpired during Queen Elizabeth I's reign. Photo by Ron Scherl/Redferns

Composer: Gaetano Donizetti

Premiered: October 29, 1837 - Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, Italy

Setting of Roberto Devereux: Donizetti's opera, Roberto Devereux, takes place in England in 1600.

More Tragic Opera Synopses:

Roberto Devereux, Act 1

In 1601, Queen Elizabeth I's favored Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, is promptly removed from his position as Governor of Ireland after he agreed to a ceasefire with the rebels.

Some time later, he unsuccessfully started an uprising, but was caught and charged with high treason. As he awaits his trial in London at the Great Hall of Westminster, Sara (the Duchess of Nottingham) is in the courtroom desperately trying to hide her emotions. She is in love with Roberto, despite being married to Roberto's best friend. As she reads a story about Fair Rosamond, she realizes her own life parallels the famed legend and begins to weep. The women around her take notice of her sadness, but she ensures them she is quite happy. 

The queen enters the courtroom and declares that she will meet with Roberto one more time after receiving an urgent request from the Duke of Nottingham (Sara's husband). She announces that she will release Roberto as long as his loyalty to England remains strong and reliable. The queen then reveals her love for Roberto, and Sara is taken aback. Moments later, Lord Cecil enters the room demanding the queen deliver her answer to the Parliament regarding Roberto's charge.

In response, she spurns the Royal Council's proposed death warrant.

Roberto enters the room and is escorted to the queen. Sara is on pins and needles - she tries her best to home in on their conversation. Her fears become true when she hears the queen confess her love to Roberto. All but the queen and Roberto leave the room.

Face to face, the queen makes a promise to Roberto that he will always be safe as long as he brings to her the ring she gave him many years ago. Roberto is deeply thankful and they share past memories. However, the happy moment vanishes the moment Roberto accidentally makes reference to his lover. The queen becomes jealous in an instant and orders him to tell her the name of the other woman. Roberto backpedals and tells her she is mistaken, he does not love anyone else. The queen doesn't believe a word he says and departs in a fit of rage. The Duke of Nottingham arrives shortly thereafter, and the two friends converse about the trial. Then, the duke tells Roberto that he is concerned for his wife's well-being as of late - he found her crying over a blue scarf she was knitting. Lord Cecil returns to the room requesting the Duke to come back to the meeting that will decide the whether or not Roberto is guilty of high treason. The duke affirms his friendship and tells Roberto he will do his best to defend him.

Later, Sara paces in her apartment as she worries for Roberto. She is surprised when he enters her room. He is angry with her for marrying the duke while he was away in Ireland, but she tells him she was ordered to do so by the queen.

She then points out that Roberto is still wearing the ring given to him by the queen. He quickly removes it and they passionately embrace. Knowing their love can never be, they agree it is best to never see each other again. Sara convinces him to flee, and in doing so, gives him the blue scarf as a reminded and symbol of the love they share. They say their goodbyes and Roberto leaves.

Roberto Devereux, Act 2

The queen returns to the Great Hall and asks Lord Cecil for Roberto's verdict. He tells her that they decided to sentence him to death. Sir Walter Raleigh states that Roberto has been arrested according to the queen's orders, and when he was searched, they found a blue scarf concealed within his belongings. The duke arrives and pleads with the queen to set Roberto free. However, when the scarf is revealed and examined by the queen, the duke instantly recognizes it; his countenance burns with fury.

When Roberto is brought to the queen, she immediately questions him about the scarf. She tells him she will set him free if he tells her the name of the woman with whom he is in love, but he refuses to answer. The duke is ready to kill Roberto himself, and so is the queen. She quickly signs Roberto's death warrant and sends him away. 

Roberto Devereux, Act 3

Sara sits impatiently in her apartment when a letter arrives from Roberto. In it, he asks her to return the ring to the queen with hopes that she may uphold her promise to him. Sara quickly grabs the ring and runs toward the door, but the duke comes home and blocks her exit. Despite her protests, he does not allow her to leave. He reads Roberto's letter and orders her to confinement. When they hear the funeral march passing by their window, Sara is distraught. The duke decides to take matters into his own hands and rushes outside to exact revenge. 

Roberto waits in his cell in the Tower of London, hoping that Sara will come through with his request. When he is taken from his cell and marched toward his execution, he realizes his fate and prays.

Sara escapes her husband's confinement and bursts into the Great Hall. She confesses her guilt and presents Roberto's ring, imploring the queen to keep her promise. Despite her anger, the queen still loves Roberto and orders her men to stop the execution. Sadly, it is too late. The cannon blast is heard, signaling Roberto's death. The duke arrives, seemingly pleased with himself. The queen wonders why it took Sara so long to deliver Roberto's ring.

When questioned, the duke tells her, "Sangue volli, e sangue ottenni" (I wanted blood, and blood I got). The queen turns her back to Sara and the duke and orders her men to take them away.

The queen spends the remainder of her life haunted by Roberto's decapitated ghost.