GREAT BARRINGTON — Oh, the pain of love. That was the theme, if not quite the title, of Aston Magna's season-opening concert as two creamy-voiced sopranos, Nell Snaidas and Kristen Watson, spun tales of the doomed Ariadne, Helen of Troy, Orpheus and Eurydice.
"Love and Lamentation" (the actual title) told those stories, but in the context of music history: Monteverdi (1567-1643) and his legacy. The program notes, recounting the secular and sacred influences in the style he created, lent perspective, but it was the voices that caught and held the attention.
In solos and duets, the well-matched singers joined with a five-member instrumental ensemble in opera scenes and cantatas by Monteverdi, Marco Marazzoli and Luigi Rossi. Despite joyful moments — Orpheus recaptures his beloved Eurydice, before the fatal look back at her — the mood of the evening was hardly one to send you out into the night with a smile and a tune on your lips. But these performances, especially when the voices were twining, burned with intensity.
The program — the first of four by the early-music festival on successive Saturdays at Simon's Rock — was designed and annotated by guest director Erin Headley. She also played the lirone (translation: lyre), an obsolete 14-stringed instrument that she revived. It enriched the ensemble accompaniments with its multiple-stopped, deep-hued, slightly buzzing tones.
Aston Magna solved the problem of printed texts for the audience by not solving it. There were no texts, and the house, except for the stage, was left in darkness. True, the focus was on the music, and spoken synopses set the scene for the performances. But unless you were up on your 17th-century Italian, you were on your own in following what was being sung moment by moment.
The program began and ended with excerpts from the "Orfeo" operas by Monteverdi and Rossi. (Both have been staged in the Berkshires — the Monteverdi only last year — by the Boston Early Music Festival.)
Monteverdi was the appetizer: the prologue to his "Orfeo," sung by Snaidas, and his "Lamento d'Arianna," a scene from an otherwise lost opera, sung by Watson. The singers then paired, to tragic effect, in the little-known Marazzoli's "Lamento d'Elena invecchiata, in which the aging (invecchiata) Helen of Troy contemplates her fading beauty. Watson was the lamenting queen, Snaidas a sympathetic narrator.
The finale was three extended scenes from Rossi's "Orfeo," with the deeper-voiced Watson in the male role. Powerful music was powerfully sung as the legendary lovers made the journey from wedding to underworld, from joy to death. A shock in the accompaniment marked the fatal look back.
The instrumental group, which played softly but expressively throughout, also contributed brief selections by Biagio Marini and Rossi. But it was the singing that stuck in the mind.