It will come as no surprise that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, appears in Romantic opera. He is usually the tenor. At least this is the case in the three Italian operas, one by Rossini and two by Donizetti, that I have found.
The best known of the three nowadays must be Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti (1835). Very loosely adapted from Friedrich Schiller’s play, Robert Dudley is here the principal male character, a sympathetic hero very much in love with two queens (who are each even more in love with him). Both queens, Mary and Elizabeth, frequently sing, shout, and sigh: “Roberto!”
The other Donizetti opera is Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (1829). This opera was performed just eight years after the release of Walter Scott’s bestselling historical novel, Kenilworth, being based on two French plays, Victor Hugo’s Amy Robsart and Eugène Scribe’s Leicester (1828 and 1823, respectively). Walter Scott’s Kenilworth in 1821 had unleashed a flood of adaptations (and paintings) centered around Amy Robsart, Robert Dudley’s unfortunate first wife. It could be said that the novel very much created the popular story of the innocent, unhappy, and abandoned wife.
The plot of Scott’s novel, as well as the opera, merge two of Robert Dudley’s wives/girl friends into one person: Amelia, Countess of Leicester. Amelia is loosely based on the real life ladies Amy Robsart and Douglas Sheffield. The plot culminates in Elizabeth’s visit to the festival of Kenilworth Castle, where the real Earl of Leicester threw a 19-day-party in 1575.
About 20 years before Gaetano Donizetti’s operas, Gioachino Rossini also applied himself to bringing Elizabeth I onto the stage. His opera, Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, was first performed in 1815, based on a 1814 play, Il paggio di Leicester (Leicester’s page). This play by Carlo Federici was in turn based on an English historical novel, The Recess (1785), by Sophia Lee.
In this opera the Duke of Norfolk features prominently. He wants to engineer Leicester’s downfall and tells the queen that Leicester is secretly married (with Matilde, a Scotswoman, and a secret daughter of Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s great rival). Elizabeth throws both Matilde and Leicester into prison and demands that Matilde agrees to dissolve the marriage, so that she, the queen, can marry Leicester herself. Leicester vehemently rejects this possibility, preferring death over such a dishonourable solution.
Leicester is in prison, waiting for his execution as a traitor, when Elizabeth secretly visits him to help him escape. Norfolk also appears in order to liberate his supposed friend, with the help of the people. However, Leicester declines, once again deciding in favour of honour and death. On hearing this, Norfolk tries to kill Elizabeth, but is soon taken to another part of the prison. In the end, Elizabeth forgives everyone and resolves to banish love from her heart and devote herself to state business henceforward.
The plot of Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra brings to mind certain scenes from Shekar Kapur’s 1998 film, Elizabeth.