NEWTON - Cappella Clausura and director Amelia LeClair joined with the sacred dance troupe Creationdance to reprise “Gloria: A Renaissance Christmas Pageant’’ over the weekend, their period-music variation on the familiar Nativity spectacle. The ensemble, dedicated to vocal music by female composers, has presented the pageant for five seasons; while its proportions might be modest (10 musicians, seven dancers, just over an hour) and its splendor episodic, at its best, and in the best possible sense, “Gloria’’ provides escapism of a high order.
The music was mostly drawn from the convents of northern Renaissance Italy, where nuns produced works of such idiosyncratic glory that towns built “chiese esteriori,’’ exterior churches, where the public could listen in on the cloistered singing, likening it to the sound of heaven. Certainly, in Sulpitia Cesis’s “Magi videntes stellam,’’ permeated with decorative scales and turns, or Chiara Cozzolani’s “Gloria in altissimus Deo,’’ its final “Alleluia’’ repeated in obsessive abundance, the group demonstrated the opulent possibilities of personal, isolated devotion. (From outside Italy came the singular 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen, whose “O virdissima virga’’ showed sumptuous melodic profile, and modern composer Patricia Van Ness, whose neo-medieval “Magnificat,’’ drone-based and chant-like, seemed a bit pale in such lavish company.) The accompaniment - Celtic harps, gamba and vielle, and organ - tended toward the folk-like; the singing was mostly full and fine, only accumulating a little blurry heaviness in the loudest sections.
The pageant was stop-and-go, dancers (three professionals and four students) appearing only in some sections, the numbers compartmentalized rather than flowing together. Creationdance director Helena Froehlich’s choreography alternated between traditional ballet’s turnout and pointe, the reiterated patterns of Renaissance dance, and some fairly literal mime, but as drama, it was often static, more visual decor than storytelling. And the music itself was, in its richness, illustration enough.
An audience singalong of three familiar carols was a somewhat anticlimactic ending, curtailing the older repertoire’s individual joy in favor of a collective familiarity that, in the context, seemed dutiful. The true acme was a trio of hymns from the 13th-century Laudario di Firenze collection, embellishing dancing rhythms with effusive ornamentation. The “Altissima stella,’’ especially, praising the Virgin as a Bethlehem-worthy star, was both personal and inviting, extravagant and intimate. Cappella Clausura shined most when channeling the experience of the chiesa esteriore, turning away from the public and corporate Christmas in order to eavesdrop on paradise.