By Speight Jenkins
The opera takes place in a castle in the south of England in 1642, when Oliver Cromwell and his parliamentary forces were about to oust the royalists. Elvira has fallen in love with a royalist, Arturo. Before the opera begins, her father Lord Gaultiero Walton (a follower of Cromwell) has agreed that she can marry Arturo (although Elvira does not know this yet), a decision unheard of at the time because of the bitter enmity between Puritans and their foes.
A Cromwellian, Riccardo, is in love with Elvira and furious at her father’s decision. In the first major aria of the opera, “Ah, per sempre,” Riccardo relates both his intention to love Elvira forever and his desire to thwart her marriage to Arturo. Shortly thereafter Elvira and her uncle, Giorgio, are alone together. Giorgio reassures her that he has convinced her father to let her marry Arturo. Elvira is ecstatic and as salutes proclaim the arrival of her suitor, she rushes to meet Arturo, who poetically expresses his feelings to her. Elvira tells her uncle that she would rather die than marry Riccardo.
Elvira’s father explains that he has to escort a female prisoner to London, someone who is thought to be a Stuart sympathizer, and so cannot attend his daughter’s engagement celebration. Everyone leaves but Arturo and the woman, who reveals to Arturo that she is Enrichetta, the widow of the executed Charles I. Arturo, as a royalist, pledges to help her escape. Elvira rushes back, joyously anticipating her wedding and showing off her wedding veil.
She wants to see how it looks, and she tries it on the erstwhile prisoner, leaving it with her when the guests call her to another part of the castle. Arturo thinks that the veil will disguise Enrichetta. As they are about to rush away, Riccardo appears and stops them, determined to kill his rival. Enrichetta reveals her identity to Riccardo who then lets them escape, knowing this will ruin Arturo. When Elvira and her friends come in, Riccardo delightedly tells everyone what has happened. Elvira, believing herself betrayed, loses her reason. She doesn’t know who she is, and when she remembers she gives way to grief, as the act ends.
The second act finds Elvira utterly distraught, hallucinating, and inconsolable in her sadness. Arturo is condemned to death in absentia. Giorgio tries to make Riccardo understand that Elvira will stay insane unless Arturo is found and pardoned. He joins Riccardo in a thrilling call to patriotism.
In the third act Arturo returns, eluding soldiers, determined to explain himself to Elvira. He sings a song that she recognizes, and she rushes to him. They express their ecstatic happiness.
The sound of drums and her knowledge that Arturo could be executed causes Elvira to slip again into unreality. Riccardo and Giorgio discover the lovers, and Riccardo declares that the sentence of death will be carried out. Arturo bids farewell to the now almost insensate Elvira. Just as the execution is about to take place, word comes that the royalist forces are defeated and there is a general amnesty. Arturo is saved; Elvira is restored to sanity, and the opera ends in general rejoicing.