For anyone passionate about music of the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras, played on period instruments or modern replicas, the single weekend of the Portland Early Music Festival seems far too little. Yet within that limitation, the festival, presented by the Portland Conservatory of Music and directed by Timothy Burris, touches on a surprisingly large stretch of the pre-Romantic repertory.

I was unable to attend the first two concerts, but for the record, they included the Berry Collective playing 18th century works for fortepiano, clarinet and cello, including a few Mozart rarities, on Friday, and a program of 17th century Italian works for five violas da gamba and lute, by the El Dorado Ensemble, on Saturday.

The closing concert, on Sunday at Woodfords Congregational Church, was in many ways the most alluring. It reached back into musical history the farthest, and as a double bill, it offered greater variety than the first two programs, with the Bowdoin Chamber Choir presenting works that were popular in the early 16th century, during the reign of Henry VIII, and St. Mary’s Schola performing Claudio Monteverdi’s mini-drama, “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.”

The Monteverdi was the real draw here. Having been one of the inventors of opera – his 1607 “L’Orfeo,” though not the very first (that would be Jacopo Peri’s “Dafne,” written a decade earlier), is the earliest opera still regularly performed – Monteverdi spent his life searching for ways to capture the most primal emotions palpably in music.

“Combattimento,” composed around 1624 and published as part of Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals (”Madrigals of Love and War”) in 1638, was an experiment along those lines, based on his interpretation of Plato’s ideas about how musical style can evoke the passions. It runs just under 20 minutes, but it has the color, drama and intensity of a full-length opera.

Its text is drawn from an episode in Torquato Tasso’s “La Gerusalemme Liberata” that depicts hand-to-hand combat between Tancredi, a Christian knight, and Clorinda, a Muslim woman with whom Tancredi is in love. Since they are both in full armor, neither knows the other’s identity until Clorinda, defeated and dying, removes her helmet, forgives Tancredi and asks to be baptized.

The story is related mostly through the work’s sung narration and even more vividly in the accompanying instrumental writing, which depicts everything from the galloping of Tancredi’s horse to the clatter of battle and the ebb and flow of the physically daunting clash. But although dialogue is used only sparingly, the work’s most affecting moment – and one of the most sublime moments in all of classical music – is the slowly rising figure that accompanies Clorinda’s (and the work’s) final line, “Heaven opens, I go in peace.”

Schola had its Tancredi (Paul McGovern) and Clorinda (Molly Harmon) masked and, at the start, moving along the church’s aisles, tracking each other warily before making their way to the stage for the battle. A prop or two – swords and shields – might have been useful here. Instead, they swung at each other like weirdly trained boxers.

Still, both singers made the most of the few (but crucial) lines Monteverdi gave them, and Martin Lescault delivered an animated performance of the narration, with superb support from the instrumental ensemble – violinists Mary Jo Carlsen and Michael Albert, violist Bryan Brash, gambist Kathryn Sytsma and theorboist Timothy Burris, conducted from the harpsichord by Bruce Fithian.

The Bowdoin Chamber Choir, conducted by Robert Greenlee, made a fine showing with a program that mixed sacred and secular settings.

The choir was at its best in works that demanded its full weight, most notably Henry VIII’s lively “Pastime With Good Company,” sacred settings by Josquin des Prez (”Tu Solus, Qui Facis Mirabila”) and John Taverner (”Prudens Virgo”), and a pair of Spanish works (a tribute to Henry’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon), the anonymous “Dindirin” and a lengthy, colorful piece by Mateo Flecha (”El Fuego”).

Woven among the choral works were instrumental works, including solo harpsichord pieces by Marchetto Cara, Pierre Passereau and Hugh Ashton, in gracefully energetic readings by George Lopez, and “Joyssance vous Donneray,” played as a duet by violinist Mary Hunter and cellist August Posch.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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