Anna Prohaska’s lissom and bright soprano is not a voice one immediately associates with mythical queens Dido and Cleopatra, as immortalised by Purcell and Handel. In terms of size and colour, it is a great fit for the handmaiden’s aria “Oft she visits this lov’d mountain” from Dido and Aeneas. However, Prohaska is one of those singers who convincingly offset vocal limitations with extraordinary musical and interpretative qualities. Thus she could follow Purcell’s high-lying attendant’s aria with a wholly persuasive Dido’s Lament. Her chilling “When I am laid in earth”, dipped in bitterness, concluded an evening that could serve as a blueprint on how to construct a Baroque recital, or any recital for that matter.

The entire programme was built around Dido and Cleopatra, whose love affairs with great leaders led them to suicide, one by sword and pyre, the other by serpent. Composers included the entrenched (Handel and Purcell), the familiar (Cavalli, Hasse) and the obscure (Da Castrovillari, Sartorio). Il Giardino Armonico, under the leadership of Giovanni Antonini, was not just the accompanying band, but a performance partner. Prohaska does not have the fullness that comes with heavier voices, especially in the lower range, but her pliability and exactitude are astonishing. Add to that her purity of tone and an actor’s attention to the words, and the results were often breathtaking. Perfectly carved mordents and crystalline coloratura were not just shiny ornaments, but always dramatically meaningful. With arias flowing into each other, precluding applause, and Prohaska conflating Cleopatra and Dido into one proud and passionate woman, the programme had a strong narrative delineation. It felt more like a chamber orchestra than a recital. When done this intelligently, mining different operas about the same characters give them additional facets. In an aria from Francesco Cavalli’s La Didone, the heroine haughtily rejects her suitor King Iarbas, before she falls for the One, Trojan hero Aeneas. From Daniele Da Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra Prohaska sang an unknown farewell to life and Mark Antony, a counterpart to Dido’s Lament, with touching frailty.

Forging ahead individually in the Adagio of the overture to Dido and Aeneas, Il Giardino Armonico gave scant indication of what they would achieve later on. It turned out that they were settling into their trademark glowing sound. Once Prohaska launched into her second aria, from Christoph Graupner’s Dido, Königin von Karthago, with burbling recorder accompaniment by Antonini, they found a collective momentum. Sounding tightly-packed one moment and wonderfully transparent the next, Il Giardino Armonico were gratifying together and as soloists. Antonini’s fluency on his family of recorders was impressive, but so was Michele Pasotti on the theorbo, sounding as if he were improvising a beautiful Passacaille by Luigi Rossi there and then. The ensemble matched Prohaska in high drama when necessary, as in Hasse’s memorable aria for Cleopatra, “Morte col fiero aspetto”, with the soprano in virtuosic combatant mode. Their control and elegance were on display in Matthew Locke’s incidental music for The Tempest and Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. After the break they played a vividly contoured Concerto grosso in C minor, Op.6 no. 8, separating the amorous heartache that dominated the first half from death’s inevitable approach in the second half. In this work Handel borrowed extensively from himself, among others by quoting Cleopatra’s “Piangerò la sorte mia from Giulio Cesare in the Adagio, and its kinetic dramatic language was a reminder why his is the most enduring baroque Cleopatra. Prohaska later offered “Piangerò la sorte mia as her one encore, but first she sang the desperate “Se pietà di me non senti”, with baffling technical facility and ever-deepening feeling in the da capo variations.

His Cleopatra flirts very prettily, but the arias by the virtually unknown Antontio Sartorio were little more than diversions. Prohaska put in as much concentrated emotion into Cleopatra’s melodious death scene by Da Castrovillari as in Dido’s shorter, but greater, farewell by Purcell. Through Graupner’s Dido we learned that his Hamburg audiences were used to hearing recitatives in German and arias in Italian. His stormy “Agitato da tempeste” was a brilliant showpiece for the soprano, who took its rapid runs without a hint of breathiness. Ultimately, and perhaps rightfully, the two greatest incarnations of these two powerful women, who gambled on love and lost everything, overshadowed the rest. Much of the fascination of this programme, in fact, lay in hearing what different composers from the same era penned for them, and marvelling anew at how Purcell and Handel managed to fully encompass their tragedy while capturing their vulnerability. And with their immortal arias, so did Anna Prohaska.