A high, plaintive vocal line floating over a continuously descending scale is a powerful thing, and no more so than in its archetype, Claudio Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa. It was the best known work in a concert of madrigals from his 1638 book, given by Italian ensemble Cantar Lontano, here in Utrecht for the Utrecht Early Music Festival, whose theme this year is Venice.

Cantar Lontano © David Karlin
Cantar Lontano
© David Karlin

The nymph in question was soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, who produced a vocal line that was nothing short of sublime, to a pared down accompaniment of two theorbos, viola da gamba and harpsichord, with interjections from three male voices to fill the space below. Mazzulli gave warmth, just the right touch of decoration and a wonderful feel for how to shape each note and build it into a phrase. Her ending, followed by a brief commentary from the low voices, was heartbreaking.

The Hertz hall is sited at the very top of Utrecht's brand new Tivoli Vredenburg complex, which opened in 2014. It's a great space for chamber music: clean-sounding and capacious, but with the seats stacked steeply in galleries, so that no-one is too far from the action.

In the full format, Cantar Lontano included two violins and a viola, with a second harpsichord played by Marco Mencoboni, the ensemble's leader and conductor. Tall, lanky and with tousled grey hair, Mencoboni exudes charisma. While the boundless energy may have contributed to various slips in togetherness, you couldn't fault the vivacity and verve of the playing, nor the perfect balance that was achieved with the singers.

The centrepiece of the concert was Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, which is an opera fragment for three voices. For the most part, it is a showpiece for Tancredi, sung by Luca Dordolo, and it gave Dordolo the opportunity to show off fine ability to sing dramatically in an exceptionally wide range of moods and styles of speech – strong, violent, tender, rapid fire, legato. Mazzulli rounded things off with another piece of sublime singing at the point of Clorinda's death.

However, I can't say that the organisers made things easy for us. This isn't a piece where everyone knows the words, and quite appropriately, we were given a full text in the programme. However, since the house lights were turned off almost completely, there was no possibility of reading the text, and my Italian simply isn't good enough to understand Monteverdi-era poetry sung at speed and with decoration. As a result, I could take in all this expressivity, but without being able to relate it to the story being told. At the very least, we needed to have one of the performers tell us a quick synopsis.

For me, however, as a lover of bass singing, the show was comprehensively stolen by Salvo Vitale, as it was on the only other occasion I've seen him, with La Venexiana at Spitalfields Festival. He combines church organ solid lows with precision and flexibility in mid range – a distinctive voice that stands out in any ensemble.

This concert made me muse on how the history of opera might have been so different if this style, with its emphasis on expressivity, had been developed, rather than being replaced by the more formulaic bel canto with its predominant focus on vocal virtuosity and beauty of line. Not that the singing here lacked virtuosity or vocal beauty, but that the expression shone through at every turn in a way that thoroughly beguiled.