The opera is loosely based on the life of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, an influential member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England. The plot of Roberto Devereux was hardly original, mainly derived from Felice Romani's libretto Il Conte d'Essex of 1833, originally set by Saverio Mercadante. Romani's widow charged Cammarano with plagiarism, although the practice of stealing plots was very common between rival Italian opera houses.
It is one of a number of operas by Donizetti which deal with the Tudor period in English history and include Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Il castello di Kenilworth. The lead female characters of the operas Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux are often referred to as the "Three Donizetti Queens." They earned some degree of fame in the 1970s, when the American soprano Beverly Sills promoted them as a series at New York City Opera.
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