Elisabetta was the first opera that Gioachino Rossini wrote for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. It was a triumphant debut. He was to stay at the opera house for seven years, and conducted his reform of Italian opera from there. That he was able to do so was due in no small measure to the superlative conditions it offered. Italy's finest singers were gathered there, and Rossini was able to write music tailored especially to their talents and ask them to take part in musical experiments, of which Elisabetta provides an example. This is the first of Rossini's operas not to feature any recitativi secci and he took pains to indicate all the ornaments with great precision to prevent the singers from distorting their parts beyond all recognition in a rush of virtuosity. Although, as so often, he used ideas from earlier compositions in his new opera, he adapted all the elements to the new context. As a result, Elisabetta is a cohesive work despite the many borrowings from previous pieces. It is also one of the first historical-romantic operas. Elisabetta was immediately taken up by European opera houses, and was performed with great success at the Theater an der Wien in 1818.
The English Queen Elisabetta (Elizabeth I) feels an amorous attachment to her general, Leicester, who has just returned victorious from Scotland. However, she learns from his adversary, the Duke of Norfolk, that Leicester has secretly married Matilde, the daughter of her arch-enemy, Mary, Queen of Scots. In her fury she summons Leicester and his Scottish hostages, among whom is Matilde. At first, she tells him that she intends to marry him and make him king. In reality, though, she revels in the horror she sees in the faces of Matilde and Leicester. This makes it clear to the Queen that Matilde and Leicester really do love each other. She has them thrown into a dungeon. Norfolc tries to stir up Leicester against Elisabetta so that she has even more reason to have him executed, but Leicester refuses to take the bait. In the dungeon, the violent dénouement is played out: Norfolc tries to assassinate Elisabetta, but Matilde and her brother protect her. Elisabetta now owes a debt of gratitude to her rival, forgives Leicester and renounces love. From that moment on she devotes her life to her duties as Queen.