Beverley Sills once famously remarked that singing the role of Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux shortened her career by ten years.

The third in his trilogy of Tudor sketches, commencing with Anna Bolena succeeded by Maria Stuarda, Gaetano Donizetti’s stark character study is notoriously taxing for soloists and equally difficult to cast. Little wonder the prolific composer’s formidable bel canto tragedy and other similar high-strung period pieces dropped out of favour among producers in relatively short order following their premieres. By the mid-nineteenth century the extravagant repertoire had all but faded from sight. It took another hundred years, incredibly, before Donizetti and a handful of like-minded contemporaries were re-introduced to the international stage. A new generation of singers schooled in extreme technique — Callas, Sutherland, Sills, Caballé, among them — refocused attention on the beleaguered operatic phenomenon.

With its startling production of Dallas Opera’s Roberto Devereux from 2009, the Canadian Opera Company’s remarkable cast of gifted singer actors clears all the vocal hurdles, meticulously navigating the twists and turns of a sticky story of betrayal and self-destruction.

Librettist Salvadore Cammarano, who had previously worked with Donizetti on Lucia di Lammermoor, tapped his uniquely dark imagination to create a penetrating, albeit sensationalized, portrait of Elizabeth I in the twilight of her reign.

Inside the Palace of Westminster, Sara, Duchess of Nottingham sits quietly weeping to herself. The Queen’s favourite dares not reveal the depth of her feelings for Elizabeth’s suitor, Roberto Devereux, Earl of Essex. Elizabeth enters, excited by Devereux’s imminent return from Ireland where he has led an alleged cowardly campaign against the local rebels. Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Cecil urge her to press charges against Devereux for treason. The Queen will have none of it. Devereux arrives and bows before her. The Queen promises to protect him. If ever danger threatens, he has only to present the ring she has given him to guarantee his safety. Pressed by Elizabeth to declare his love, Devereux offers only vague reassurance. The Queen angrily sweeps out of the Great Hall. Devereux’s sole ally at court, the Duke of Nottingham, assures his friend he will do his best to have all charges against him dismissed by Parliament.

Alone in her apartments, Sara is filled with fear for both Roberto and herself. Devereux appears and accuses Sara of rejecting him. The Queen forced her to marry Nottingham against her will, Sara insists. Despite their love for one another, the pair realizes they must part. Sara presents her admirer with an embroidered scarf as a memento. Roberto gives Sara the Queen’s ring.

Cecil delivers news to the Queen that Parliament has been unswayed by Nottingham. Her Majesty will soon receive a warrant for Devereux’s execution to be duly signed. Elizabeth is shaken. Turning to Raleigh, she demands details of Devereux’s arrest. Raleigh shows her the scarf found on Roberto’s person, a love token Elizabeth concludes. Infuriated, she calls for Nottingham to deliver the death warrant to her at once. Nottingham obliges. Devereux is dragged before her. The Queen confronts him with proof of his deceit. Nottingham secretly recognizes the scarf as belonging to his wife. Shocked and enraged, he vows to kill Devereux himself but the Queen’s will prevails. Elizabeth signs the warrant.

A servant delivers a letter written in Devereux’s hand to Sara at Nottingham’s residence. She is to deliver Elizabeth’s ring to Westminster immediately. Suddenly, Nottingham bursts into the room. There will be no appeal to the Queen, he thunders. Devereux will die as ordained.

Imprisoned in the Tower, Devereux awaits execution. He has but one last wish. To wipe all trace of dishonour from Sara’s reputation. Never has she been unfaithful to Nottingham. His cell door swings open. The executioner’s axe beckons. Roberto vows to pray for Sara in heaven.

Elizabeth, her fury spent, is wracked with dread. Why has Roberto not sought her pardon by sending her the ring? Sara, bruised and disheveled from a brutal assault by her husband,  slips into the Queen’s chamber, ring in hand. The Queen instantly understands. Sara is her rival. But it is too late to stay Devereux’s execution. A cannon proclaims him dead. Nottingham enters, gloating with satisfaction. Shattered and disillusioned, Elizabeth orders him and his wife arrested. Haunted by a vision of Roberto’s headless ghost and sensing her own approaching death, she surrenders her throne, proclaiming James of Scotland ruler, then collapses, helpless and abandoned.

Compelling as it may be in the context of Donizetti’s anguished work, Elizabeth’s abdication and her choice of a Catholic king as successor is, of course, pure fiction. There is no firm evidence even to support the notion of the Queen’s obsessive love affair with Essex. Good opera stories have never overly relied on facts. The truth of the matter is Roberto Devereux is less a treatise on English history than a study of human nature. Seen from Donizetti’s pov, Devereux is executed because he has betrayed, not so much the state, but rather the Queen’s heart. Elizabeth is an emotional absolutist who feeds on love and adoration, vulnerable and needy, forever isolated centre stage in a swirl of events she can not control.

Director Stephen Lawless sets his production in a moody replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, an effective visual metaphor for the reality of Elizabeth’s existence. An avid fan of the bard’s plays, the cynical old Queen still draws an audience of her own, playing herself as always, leading us behind the scenes at times to glimpse the true face of the actor, ashen and exhausted beneath her freakish make-up. From opening scenic montage, a parade of tongue-in-cheek highlights from Elizabeth’s reign, sinking of cut-out Spanish Armada included, to harrowing final act, Lawless maintains a brisk pace.

If Roberto Devereux’s dramatic vision is intense, its musical elements are no less acute.  Bel canto opera is based on a precise recurring formula. Singing advances in cycles, each principal responsible for an extended vocal set opening with a protracted recitative, followed by a serene cantabile aria, an a cappella segment, seguing into a boisterous cabaletta. The challenge for artists confronted by bel canto scores has always been to overcome the inherent sense of inevitability. Thankfully, this Roberto Devereux’s accomplished cast keeps the predictability factor to a minimum.

With her quick vibrato and impeccable tone Sondra Radvanovsky’s Elizabeth I rules. Roberto Devereux‘s flawed English Queen requires an exceptional voice, muscular yet flexible, laced with drama. Add the essential qualities required of any bel canto principal — beguiling timbre, disciplined coloratura, limpid legato — and the opera’s central role is revealed in all its perilous glory. Radvanovsky breezes past danger. Rarely does a singer actor display such a vast palette of colours, soft and muted in times of sorrow, hot and blazing in moments of rage. The sheer theatricality of Radvanovsky’s instrument is as astonishing as her spellbinding physicality on stage. Arias flow like tears. Her Vivi, ingrato, a lei d’accanto (“Live, ungrateful man, at her side”), the Queen’s heartbroken cry of defeat on learning of Devereux’s infidelity, is inexpressibly moving.

Leonardo Capalbo, sharing the role of Roberto with fellow lyric tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, embodies an authentic, Italianate sound, bright, clear and bell-like. Strutting and forte in his first appearances as Devereux, the defiant hero, infinitely more piano and subdued as condemned traitor, Capalbo displays a gripping urgency in his voice that readily transmits to character.

Popular baritone Russell Braun is a powerful Nottingham, skillfully charting the Duke’s hair-raising slide from decency to corruption by way of jealousy and hubris. Although arguably stressed from time to time by Donizetti’s tessitura, Braun maintains a rich, consistent depth of sound and sturdiness of expression throughout the full range of his textured performance.

Mezzo Allyson McHardy takes flight as Sara, Nottingham’s abused wife. Launching the evening’s proceedings with her sensitive, finely filigreed rendition of Donizetti’s poignant All’afflitto è dolce il pianto (“To those who suffer, how sweet it is to weep”), this splendid Canadian artist blends great style and humanity to create a character of enormous pathos.

Owen McCausland as Cecil and Matt Boehler as Raleigh command attention, youthful but clearly dangerous courtiers.

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra led by visiting conductor Corrado Rovaris provides taut accompaniment. The COC Chorus shines.

This is an exceptional Roberto Devereux by any number of artistic standards but it is Radvanovsky who makes it momentous. By crowning its production with premier appearances by the super-soprano, the Canadian Opera Company has confirmed this extraordinary singer’s right of succession to bel canto’s historic throne.