Despite modern interpretations of Elizabeth I as a strong, smart leader, the monarch was not a popular figure in the predominantly Catholic Europe of her day, nor for centuries after. Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) captures this dislike in his trio of Tudor operas, the last of which, Roberto Devereux, made its Canadian Opera Company debut on Friday evening in Toronto. The production uses a recreation of the Globe Theatre as its setting, adding heft to the Shakespearean idea of royalty as performance. While it paints Elizabeth I (here Elisabetta) as a needy, vengeful older woman, director Stephen Lawless offers a deeply sympathetic portrait of a scared woman horrified to become a part of the bloody history that so vividly colors her past.

The opera’s narrative structure is relatively straight-forward; aging Elizabetta (Sondra Radvanovsky) has romantic designs on young Roberto (Leonardo Capalbo), Earl of Essex, who has been accused of treason. He is carrying on an affair with Sara, Duchess of Nottingham (Allyson McHardy), the Queen’s favorite lady-in-waiting, who is married to the Duke of Nottingham (Russell Braun), one of the Queen’s trusted advisors. Tragedy flows from discovery of the affair, and Elisabetta is forced to confront her bloody legacy as ruler and so-called “Virgin Queen.”

Lawless brilliantly uses the 1837 opera’s overture to stage a dramatic contextualization of the history behind the opera, and to reference Donizetti’s two other, earlier operas in the Tudor trio, Anna Bolena (1830) and Maria Stuarda (1835, last performed at the COC in a Lawless production in 2010). The opening has Elisabetta watch and interact with various aspects of her past: the battle between her father, Henry VIII and mother, Anne Boleyn; playing Titania in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; defeating the Spanish Armada. There’s also a clever reference to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who had been the Queen’s favorite; having already passed away during the time period Devereux covers, we see a masked, caped figure looming over a Globe balcony, who, when he removes his mask, is none other than the Devereux himself, stepson to Dudley. It’s a telling symbol of both his power over the Queen’s emotions and his duplicitous nature.

While such theatrical elements could come off hokey, the production (originally staged at Dallas Opera) never hits a false note. Instead of presenting an historical tragedy (Donizetti’s opera was, after all, the highest form of Catholic propaganda), it is an emotional drama that explores how the desires of the heart contrast with the calamities of position, and the infirmities of age. The bravura of Elizabetta’s Act I aria, “Ah! ritorna qual ti spero”, contrasts sharply with her aria in the opera’s final act, “Quel sangue versato al cielo s’innalza”. We see the Fairy Queen move between (and struggle with) various emotional states and positions (vengeful Queen, spurned lover, old woman), a journey which is the inherent subtext of Lawless' vision.

Benoit Dugardyn’s creative set design enhances this journey, moving between epic and intimate scales, and simple if effective color schemes. In one scene, a rich, royal-red velvet carpet covers the wooden planks of the Globe's “stage”; Elisabetta’s dress blends in as she crumples in emotional exhaustion, merging with her both her history (royal and bloody) and her passion (fiery and sensuous). By contrast, Sara’s quarters are a faded royal blue, as if position has only the most cursory of roles within the household, but an omniscient one that extends into the bedroom, where canopy, curtains, even bedspread, are the same shade. Such smart design, together with the intense, highly watchable chemistry of mezzo-soprano McHardy and baritone Braun, whispers of divided loyalties and unspoken grudges within the union. The Act III scene between the two is particularly unsettling, ending in an implied filial rape made all the more visceral for Braun’s outburst of rage matched only by the intensity of his chocolatey tone; the Canadian baritone channels outrage, hurt, and an ugly kind of chauvinism that comes across as clearly in his actions as it does in his vocal lines.

The Queen, however, gets the lion’s share of the vocal fireworks. Radvanovsky’s flexible voice expresses a range of heartfelt emotions while maintaining a perfect bel canto reading that matches Donizetti’s challenging score. The Canadian-American soprano’s acting is just as authentic, with every mannerism, however small or large (drumming fingers, panged walking, shoving helpful hands away), adding to the emotional truth of the character.

Equally as affecting is Leonardo Capalbo in the title role. The Italian-American tenor uses his scrappy physicality to great effect, carefully altering body language in his presence of both Sara and Elisabetta, dropping all the masks when he is alone in the Tower of London, awaiting execution. His rich tenor voice brilliantly betrays a heartbreaking vulnerability and keen sensitivity that earned every single “Bravo!” shrieked at the conclusion of his “Come un spirto angelico” (sung near the opera’s end) on opening night.

Roberto Devereux ends similarly to its beginning, with Elisabetta imitating her parents as she steps into a glass case, becoming another staid piece of murderous Tudor history. While it’s hardly accurate (again, that Catholic propaganda), it’s a deeply thoughtful ending to a moving production that examines, with heart-rending power, the price of power and love, and the danger of combining the two.