Purcell: Come Ye Sons of Arts; Dido and Aeneas

Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh

Wigmore Hall, 1 May 20084 stars

Paul McCreesh (Photo: Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times)The grand surroundings of the famous Wigmore Hall buzzed in anticipation of this visit one of today's finest Early Music ensembles, the Gabrieli Consort. Despite the small number of players, there seemed to be quite a squeeze on stage. And as if this wasn't bad enough, eight singers were then shoe-horned in in front of them, creating an incredibly packed stage area, from a visual perspective, at least.

Paul McCreesh's brief greeting, alerting the audience to a few small changes to the programme, worked in his favour establishing a friendly, informal atmosphere, despite the formal setting of the Hall. The programme was light and well-balanced, prefacing Purcell's most famous opera with his Come Ye Sons of Arts, a celebratory ode composed for Queen Mary's thirty-second birthday.

McCreesh conducted without a score throughout and stood off to the left of the stage – probably due to lack of space. However, this simple placement did work well to open up the stage and bring the performers to the fore. Indeed, in the tutti sections, all singers stood up together with gusto, yet on such a cramped stage, this appeared vaguely comical. Daniel Taylor's countertenor solo was expressively performed, and generally sung with a warm tone, despite occasionally sounding a little panicked. There was a particularly sublime moment in Jeremy Budd's tenor solo section – accompanied by only two recorders and two theorbos, his mellifluous approach brought a captivated silence upon the audience.

There was a good ensemble blend between the singers; the sopranos' register was an advantage, ensuring they were heard despite being outnumbered by men, four to one. There was good interplay and imitation between oboe and soprano soloist Julia Doyle whose performance was intense and emotional, befitting the prayerful nature of the text at this point. She came across a more modest performer than her soprano colleague, Elin Manahan Thomas, yet her talent still shone through in her singing. I've said it before, but the cello player, Joseph Crouch, is by far the most expressive of players in the consort – he visibly displays his enjoyment and interpretation of the music in an inclusive way. His communication with the conductor is tangible and clear, a real joy to watch. It is performers like this who provide evidence in support of going to watch live classical music concerts in a time where a visually-stimulated society questions their ability to entertain.

The second half welcomed the start of Dido and Aeneas, which set off at a faster pace than felt entirely comfortable, at least from a listener's perspective. This pace was maintained through Belinda's (Elin Manahan Thomas) opening solo. Unfortunately, it just felt a little too rushed. This was thankfully rectified, though, by the time Dido's aria 'Ah, Belinda' arrived, and settled for the rest of the performance. Sarah Connolly (Dido) delivered this aria with great beauty and emotion, wisely ornamented on repeats. She filled the whole hall, not only with her resounding voice, but by grasping the attention of all and her dramatic emphasis on the words was wonderfully evocative. The singers performed without music for Dido, and this worked well, helping to bring the performance to life, despite it being unstaged. The chorus interjections were cohesive, lively, vibrant and well balanced. Indeed, the performance was largely characterised by polished charm and the lilting tempo at the start of Act III - set on the ships - worked exceptionally well.

The gravitas Connolly brought to her role meant that she outshone those around her, the most notable contrast being with Manahan Thomas. In comparison, Thomas seemed more diva-like and lacked Connolly's the natural acting ability. It was unfortunate that, at times, her eagerness to portray the urgency within her words led to them feeling a little snatched. As Aeneas, Ronan Collett, sang his arias with emotion and much expression, yet - in comparison to Connolly's Dido - I found his character portrayal less convincing than I had hoped for. However, Daniel Taylor gave a dazzling performance as the Sorceress, also providing visual delights for the audience members who were greatly amused by the drama and comedy he brought to his portrayal, keeping it just within the lines of propriety. Each time he sang in this role, he unleashed his wayward, curly locks, and adapted a confidently wicked attitude that the audience relished. In comparison to his relatively restrained performance in the first half of the concert, he came alive as the Sorceress and his voice triumphantly boomed around the concert hall. Taylor made the witch's scenes dazzling highlights of the performance a whole.

As mentioned by McCreesh at the start of the concert, two guitar dances were integrated into the opera, as Purcell apparently indicated. The performance flowed neatly in and out of these interludes, creating a welcome break in the action – although of course their benefit would be more notable in a staged performance.

In the end, it was the sheer depth of emotion Connolly infused in her portrayal of Dido that was truly remarkable. Emotion flowed off the stage from the intensity in her voice and through her actions, all small but perfectly executed. She, more than any (with the possible exception of the Taylor), entirely occupied the role in a convincing and heartbreaking way. Her final aria, one of the most beautiful in English Baroque music, brought a tear to the eye in a hall so quiet you could hear a pin drop. All received exuberant applause at the end of the evening, but no one more than Connolly for such a moving portrayal of this tragic heroine.

By Claudine Nightingale