Gaetano Donizetti is recognised as one of the giants of 19th-century Italian opera (his works include Lucia Di Lammermoor and L'Elisir D'Amore), but Roberto Devereux is probably the hardest sell in the Welsh National Opera's Spring 2019 season, having fallen out of favour somewhat since its premiere in 1837.

Its most familiar melody is the overture, and that only because it quotes anachronistically from God Save The Queen.

The tale, set in the court of England's Queen Elizabeth I - Elisabetta, is a take on the supposed romance between the Virgin Queen and her much younger favourite Robert (Roberto) Devereux, Earl Of Essex.

The plot is straightforward: Roberto is on the verge of a death sentence, having been accused of seeking to unseat Elisabetta, who is in love with him. Roberto is, however, in love with her lady-in-waiting, Sara. But Sara is married to the Duke of Nottingham, who is a staunch defender of Roberto's. Until he discovers he is being deceived...

This revival of the 2013 production is notable for Madeleine Boyd's bleak design - austere interiors, costumes inspired by Vivienne Westwood, the garishly bewigged and face-painted Queen; not to mention the startling, steam-punk-inflected, spider-shaped throne.

All four principals are excellent, with Joyce El-Khoury remarkable as the imperious, passionate, red-gowned monarch. Barry Banks' Roberto is more career politician than matinee idol; Justina Gringyté's Sara easily wins our sympathy; and Biagio Pizzuti is compelling as the wronged Nottingham, director Alessandro Talevi provocatively suggesting marital rape as part of his repertoire of vengeance.

The black-clad chorus - plotting men, gossiping women – is deployed with great effectiveness; and under the baton of the legendary Carlo Rizzi, the WNO Orchestra flawlessly conveys Donizetti's populist romanticism.

Visually inventive and dramatically involving, this is operatic spectacle at its most chilling.

Roberto Devereux is at Wales Millennium Centre tomorrow, then touring.

By Othniel Smith.