Queen Elizabeth has been brought back for a return engagement at the Hartke Theatre, where she appeared so impressively last year in Gaetano Donizetti's opera "Maria Stuarda."

This year the opera is "Roberto Devereux," also by Donizetti, who must have been fascinated by the Virgin Queen's sex life. The impact of this production is a shade less strong than that of "Maria Stuarda," which was extraordinary. But "Roberto Devereux" is well worth seeing for some wonderful melodies (including "God Save the Queen" in the overture), several outstanding performances and a few scenes of high dramatic tension -- also for the expert conducting of David Lawton, a good, small orchestra, and a chorus that sings well and generates a lot of Elizabethan atmosphere in John Lehmeyer's expertly designed costumes.

The plot, which plays hide-and-seek with historical reality, is highly melodramatic -- useful mostly for generating larger-than-life dramatic confrontations. Devereux (tenor Reed Smith) is the Earl of Essex, who was beheaded by Elizabeth (soprano Melissa Locher) ostensibly for treason but actually, according to the libretto, for rejecting the queen's love and choosing instead Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham (mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe). The jealous rage of the scorned queen and the connubially dishonored Duke of Nottingham (bass-baritone Joseph Corteggiano) is the driving force that gives the work its dramatic intensity and makes Devereux literally lose his head.

By far the best opening-night performance yesterday evening was given by Hanslowe, who has a warm, supple and richly expressive voice, considerable acting ability and a commanding stage presence. Corteggiano was rather stiff and colorless at the beginning, before jealousy made him a sort of monster, but he rose splendidly to the change of character in Act 2, after discovering that his friend loves his wife, in the harsh confrontation with his wife in Act 3, and in the chilling conclusion, when he refuses a simple gesture that would save Essex's life.

The role of Elizabeth, one that would challenge the dramatic skills of a Callas, was taken by Locher, a recent graduate of the Peabody Conservatory making a promising professional debut but one that leaves room for further growth. Her voice is exquisite, particularly the clear, bright-toned and wonderfully agile upper register, and she uses it intelligently, with a good sense of musical form and word values. She needs to work on her dramatic projection, which is essentially correct but could benefit from intensification. Her Elizabeth was reasonably well done, but there are dimensions in the role beyond what she showed on opening night.

Smith struggled valiantly with vocal problems stemming from a recent throat ailment, and sang reasonably well under the circumstances. He sounded somewhat better in the second and third acts than in the first, but his tone remained raw and there were sounds of strain in his voice. Good work was done in secondary roles by Howard Carr and Christopher Flint. Lehmeyer's stage direction was expert (for instance in his use of the chorus as a visual resource) but not quite up to his best standards. The surtitles were quite literal, slightly wordy but useful.

There will be repeat performances tomorrow, Friday, Sunday and next Tuesday.