Queen Elisabetta I of England has fallen in love with Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex, but suspects that he is in love with another woman. Essex has been brought back to England to face a trial for reportedly helping the enemy during a recent military campaign, and Elisabetta wants to take this opportunity to find out the truth of how he feels about her. In a private meeting with Essex, the Queen reminds him of the ring she gave him. He needs only to send the ring to her, as a token of his love, and she will send a royal pardon to spare him from a death sentence.
But Essex’s affections lie elsewhere. Since before he was sent away from England, he has been in love with Sara, and is devastated to return to find her married to one of his closest friends, the Duke of Nottingham. If he is unable to be with Sara, his life is meaningless, and he might as well face the trial. He throws the queen’s ring down on the table, ready to accept death. Sara gives him a scarf she has embroidered, as a token of her love, and he wears it next to his heart.
The trial takes place, but with only the Duke of Nottingham speaking out to defend his friend, Essex is found guilty and sentenced to death. On his arrest, the embroidered scarf is found. Nottingham recognises it immediately, and knows that his wife has betrayed him. He returns to her, furious at her betrayal, only to find her with a letter from Essex himself, begging her to send the ring to the queen to buy him a pardon. Nottingham will not let Sara go; he will see Essex executed for their betrayal.
Too late, Nottingham relents, and Sara rushes to the queen with the ring. Elisabetta understands; her rival was Sara all along. She orders the courtiers to rush her pardon to the site of the execution, but before they can move, a cannon shot is heard: the execution is over. The queen is inconsolable. She has lost everything, her life is over. She orders everyone away, and as she sees her throne opening as a tomb before her, she walks to her death proclaiming James the next King of England.
Roberto Devereux is the dramatic final installment in Donizetti’s Tudor Queens Trilogy, and is based on a popular myth of The Essex Ring, which is thought to have originated as early as 1623.
Roberto Devereux guide sections