Few figures from history have excited the imaginations of so many within the arts as Cleopatra VII, from canvas to ballet to Elizabeth Taylor on the silver screen. Composers have been prolific in depicting the Egyptian queen, Berlioz, Massenet and Barber among them. She continues to fascinate: John Adams’ Antony and Cleopatra premieres at San Francisco Opera later this month, but it’s the Baroque period which saw the most operatic portrayals, led by her dazzling presence in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. A full gallery of Baroque Cleos was displayed in this season opener at Wigmore Hall. 

Carolyn Sampson
© Marco Borggreve

Alas, Regula Mühlemann, the Swiss soprano who devised the programme (based on her fabulous 2017 album), was announced as indisposed late in the afternoon, so Carolyn Sampson gamely jumped in to sing “all the Cleopatra arias I know… and some I didn’t!” with German period instrument ensemble La Folia Barockorchester. That wasn’t the only change in personnel: director Robin Peter Müller also withdrew, with violinist Zsuzsanna Czentnár stepping up to lead the ensemble. It was remarkable that so much of the original programme remained intact. 

As well as the famous Cleopatra, as depicted by Handel, Scarlatti and Hasse, the evening also featured Cleopatra of Antioch and Cleopatra Pontus, via arias by Legrenzi and Vivaldi. Handel’s Queen of the Nile was celebrated with two of her most famous arias. Sampson sang the fizzing “Da tempeste” with trim coloratura and nice ornamentation, if sounding a little overshadowed by the gutsy ensemble in her first number. By the end of the evening though, Cleopatra’s great “Se pietà” was sung with tremendous dignity, allied to a keening bassoon and daringly scaled back dynamics for the da capo repeat. 

In between, Giovanni Legrenzi’s “Se tu sarai felice” was sung with touching simplicity, while Scarlatti's “Vò goder senza contrasto” displayed Sampson’s limpid soprano at its most graceful in a performance featuring a prominent role for the harp. The most remarkable discoveries were from Johann Adolf Hasse’s serenata Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra. “Quel candido armellino” is a peach of an aria, beautifully sung here, while “Morte col fiero aspetto”, Cleopatra’s exclamation that death holds no fears for her, was delivered with appropriate defiance. 

La Folia Barockorchester played with a good deal of panache in several sinfonias, but their finest moment in the spotlight came in Geminiani’s Concerto grosso in D minor after “La Follia”, which, launched by harp and Baroque guitar, soon grew into an infectiously abrasive rendition. 

Fernando Olivas, a bearded giant of a man, played a long, delicate theorbo solo as a prelude to Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga”, Sampson’s touching encore for an evening when we learned of the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II.