Queen Elizabeth I has sent her beloved Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, to lead a military expedition to Ireland. Against the Queen’s orders, Devereux has signed a peace treaty with the Irish rebels. Jealous of his favorable position with the Queen, her advisors seize the opportunity to push through a charge of treason against him.
Parliament prepares to discuss charges against Robert Devereux. Sarah, the Duchess of Nottingham and close friend of Queen Elizabeth, is plagued with guilt for being romantically involved with Devereux prior to her marriage. Elizabeth arrives and expresses her love for Devereux and confides to Sarah that she suspects Devereux of being unfaithful. The Queen is interrupted by a visit from Lord Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh who convey Parliament’s frustration over her leniency towards Devereux. To stall Parliament, she demands more proof of guilt before making a decision. When a page arrives with a request from Devereux to meet with the Queen, her heart is stirred with a hope that their affection will be rekindled, and she agrees to the visit.
Elizabeth meets Devereux in private and tenderly reminds him of the ring she gave him, a special token that will guarantee his safety if he sends it back to her. Devereux accidentally reveals that he is in love with another woman. Seeing Elizabeth’s initial anger escalate to fury, he tries to deny everything, but the damage has been done: Elizabeth is set on vengeance against Devereux and the unknown woman who has won his affection. With Elizabeth infuriated, Devereux’s only remaining ally is the Duke of Nottingham (Sarah’s husband). Nottingham discloses to Devereux that he observed his wife sobbing while embroidering a blue scarf and expresses his concern over his wife’s secret suffering. Their exchange is interrupted by Lord Cecil who summons Nottingham on behalf of the Queen to a meeting of Parliament to decide Devereux’s sentence. Nottingham vows to save his friend.
Devereux cannot resist seeing Sarah while Nottingham is out. He berates her for getting married while he was at battle. She explains that, after her father’s death, the union was ordered by the Queen to ensure her financial stability. Sarah also reminds him of his previous royal affection by pointing to his ring. They acknowledge their mutual love but realize that they can never be together. As a parting gift, Sarah gives Devereux her blue embroidered scarf. Devereux accidentally leaves Elizabeth’s ring.
In the Great Hall at Westminster, Parliament reaches a decision and Lord Cecil informs the Queen of the verdict: the death penalty. Only Elizabeth’s signature is needed for the execution. She dismisses the court for a private meeting with Sir Walter Raleigh, one of her trusted spies. Walter informs the Queen that Devereux was arrested with a blue scarf hidden under his shirt. Elizabeth realizes that the scarf is a love token, which confirm her suspicions and fuels her agreement to sign Devereux’s death warrant. Nottingham begs the Queen to have mercy on Devereux. His pleas are silenced when Devereux is brought in and Elizabeth reveals the blue scarf demanding to know its owner. Recognizing the scarf as belonging to his wife, Nottingham is horrified at Devereux’s betrayal. In a fiery jealous rage, the Queen signs the death warrant.
In a letter from Devereux, Sarah learns of his imminent execution. In the letter, he implores her to take the ring back to Elizabeth, the one that is supposed to guarantee his life. Before she can leave, Nottingham returns and upon seeing the letter from Devereux, he demands to read it. Understanding that returning the ring may spare Devereux’s life, Nottingham orders Sara not to see the Queen.
Alone in the Tower of London, Devereux reflects with regret upon his life of lies and indiscretions. He remains hopeful that Elizabeth will receive the ring and pardon him. The guards arrive and Devereux allows himself to be led to his execution without protest. Elizabeth is deeply conflicted about having signed Devereux’s death warrant. She desperately hopes Devereux will return her ring as a sign of his renewed devotion. To her horror, Cecil enters and informs her that Devereux is being led to his execution. At that exact moment, Sarah bursts in and, unable to speak, hands the ring to Elizabeth, silently identifying herself as the Queen’s rival. It is too late: a cannon shot is heard signifying that the fatal blow has been delivered. Elizabeth lashes out at Nottingham and Sarah for their part in Devereux’s death. They are taken into custody and the Queen laments the events that led to her bloodstained crown. Haunted by visions of Devereux's severed head and the destruction she has caused her subjects, Elizabeth longs for death. The Queen gives up her royal power by declaring James VI of Scotland, her nephew and heir to the throne, the new King of England.
Synopsis courtesy of Canadian Opera Company