Roberto Devereux isn’t the most famous Donizetti opera, so I’ll sum up the plot for the uninitiated, using the tabloid headlines from the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production: “Seducer returns” and “OFF with his head”. That’s pretty much it: it’s a short opera, packed with showy-but-dramatic bel canto set pieces, with just four central characters. Queen Elizabeth I loves Robert Devereux, who is being tried for treason. She is determined to save his life, as is his best friend, the Duke of Nottingham – until they discover that Robert has a lover, and it’s Nottingham’s wife Sara. The predictable operatic thirst for revenge and tragic consequences ensue.

The opera is primarily a star vehicle for Queen Elizabeth, a part with many tricky arias full of both conventionally pretty coloratura and some surprisingly off-kilter intervals. Filling the role, as she did in this production’s première in 2004, is Edita Gruberová. There can be no doubt that Gruberová is a star, one of the queens of bel canto of the era. But she is also a couple decades past the time when most singers retire. She clearly still has technique, high notes, coloratura, and – above all – expressive ability. She can command a startling range of textures and dynamics, and her acting as the jealous, aging queen is spot-on. Serious signs of wear also show in her voice, though: cracks between registers, scoops to reach top notes, and sometimes a thin, screechy quality to her sound. I’m glad to have heard and seen her interpretation, but perhaps the role ought to leave her repertoire soon.

But where will the Staatsoper find an Elizabeth to match the rest of their dream cast? As Nottingham, Franco Vassallo stunned the audience with the tender, creamy richness of his voice during “Ieri, taceva il giorno”, and again in Act III when he showed off the harsher colours he can also achieve. Veronica Simeoni’s melancholy Sara had a full, wide-ranging mezzo that contrasted nicely with the Queen’s thinner soprano. She and Robert (Alexey Dolgov) may have been guilty, but it was impossible not to sympathize with the handsome young lovers. Dolgov acted well throughout, smiling self-assuredly and nonchalantly playing with his cuffs, even on the verge of death. (His mask occasionally cracked, which was very poignant.) His chance to shine vocally didn’t come until the final act, but then his heroic tenor voice and self-sacrificing demeanour in his long solo scene broke my heart.

Christof Loy’s clever staging makes more of the opera than a simple revenge tragedy. This modern-dress production, with Queen Elizabeth I looking a bit Thatcheresque, abounds in delicious ironies. Robert may be the one standing trial for treason, but Lord Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh are the ones actually committing it, as made clear by their encouragement of James of Scotland, the ambitious pretender to Elizabeth’s throne. A smaller detail that provokes a harsh laugh: Robert receives and furtively devours a letter from Sara (presumably setting their rendezvous that evening) while just a few paces away Nottingham repeatedly declares his intention to save Robert’s life and sings, “Parla tu sul labbro mio santa voce d’amistà” (“Speak on my lips, sacred voice of friendship”).

The businesslike clothes and fluorescent lighting don’t prevent this from being a dark show. Act III provides heart-wrenching scenes. A bleeding, heavily bandaged, blindfolded Robert is tortured by his fellow Parliamentarians in the background, while in the foreground Sara’s jealous husband prevents her from reaching the Queen in time to secure a pardon. He binds and blindfolds Sara, so that both lovers end up near each other on the stage but unable to see one another. When Sara is finally untied in the final scene, she is too stiff to walk. At the same time, Elizabeth has already collapsed in despair at Robert’s impending death. The two women crawl towards each other painfully slowly, and Sara manages to hand the queen the royal ring (which should save Robert’s life) just before a startlingly loud cannon shot announces that the execution is complete.

The Staatsorchester, led by Friedrich Haider, was a weak link in the performance. They came in strong on the quick forte bits of the overture, but then were unduly hesitant on the other entrances, resulting in some uncoordinated moments. They weren’t always quite with the singers, either, though for the most part they supported them well and navigated the piece’s dramatic dynamics without overpowering the cast. The Staatsoper’s Chorus also had a lot to do, and they consistently produced a well-blended sound that carried, while acting a variety of roles.

The production is modern-dress opera at its best, and the cast is almost perfect. Despite the star’s ageing voice, this is a Roberto Devereux to remember. The opera is rarely performed, but the excitement provided by this evening of Donizetti made me wonder why.