Cleopatra (the title is sometimes given as La Cleopatra) - a two-act dramma serio - was written for Catherine the Great during the time Cimarosa served as Maestro di cappella to the Russian Court at St Petersburg. The opera was probably intended to commemorate the anniversary of Catherine's coronation which fell a few days before its first performance on 27 September 1789 at the Kamennyi Theatre. (Ftis, Salvioli and Clment/Larouse are incorrect in dating it 1790 as is Eitner in ascribing it to 1788).
Set in 32 BC, the plot centres on the great love affair between Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, and Marcus Antonius, the Roman triumvir. Cimarosa's libretto was written by Ferdinando Moretti who specialized in creating poetic texts for operas based on ancient Greek and Roman sources.
Despite the silence observed by Cimarosa's contemporaries concerning Cleopatra, it is certain that it enjoyed a success, for it was given several performances at St Petersburg, where, in 1802 and 1804 it was still in the repertory under the impresario Canassi's direction (Catherine had died in 1796 and the composer himself in 1801). Cleopatra was also performed by the resident company of Count N.P. Chrmtief in a Russian translation by V. Voroblevsky.
Cimarosa so liked the overture he wrote for Cleopatra that he 'borrowed' it for the early performances of his Penelope written five years later for Teatro del Fondo in Naples to open the Carnival season of 1794-95. For Penelope, Cimarosa extended the Cleopatra overture by some 43 bars.
This edition is based on the composer's holograph score which is preserved in the library of the Conservatorio di music 'S Pietro a Majella', Naples, under the shelfmark Rari 1-2-7. As is the case with all Cimarosa's autograph material the overture to Cleopatra shows signs of having been composed at breakneck speed. Every conceivable notational shortcut is taken and his placement of articulation and dynamic markings is erratic. It is necessary, therefore, to frequently interpret the composer's intentions and even at times to impose an editorial solution where his own thoughts are not clear. Cimarosa's horn notation is often problematic and in this instance the editor has decided to adopt the conventional 18th-century practice of writing the horn parts in C, in the treble clef. In making sense of Cimarosa's score the style and notation of articulation and dynamic markings have been largely standardised throughout, and, where missing, markings have been reconstructed from parallel passages. These are indicated by the use of dotted slurs or brackets where appropriate. Obvious wrong notes have been corrected without comment; editorial emendations with no authority from the source are placed within brackets.