Grand Opera House Belfast
Review by George Fleeton
James Gatz ‘first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock’ in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of 1925.
That short work, ever since, has been a magnet for adaptations to film and television, radio and theatre, with sequels and prequels galore.
In 1999 it even surfaced as an opera, by John Harbison, and finally it is a ballet.
The best adaptation ever, arguably, was the Alan Ladd film of 1949, unfortunately no longer available, but I saw it once many years ago on French TV and that led me to read, and later to teach, the novel.
Northern Ballet, on their annual visit to Belfast, this month brought us the world première of David Nixon’s production of The Great Gatsby, set to music by British composer Richard Rodney Bennett (who had died about ten weeks before opening night in Leeds in March).
This was a superlative production in every department of this complex and sophisticated art form known as modern ballet.
Danced in 27 tableaux, to a play list of pieces of Bennett’s music over the years (including his themes from Murder on the Orient Express and Nicholas and Alexandra), the choreography, sets, lighting, costumes and solo instrumentation (Grant Green on ragtime piano) were quite simply breath-taking.
Bennett, a composer of about fifty film soundtracks, and an accomplished exponent of old-fashioned jazz, had last year given Northern Ballet complete freedom to re-orchestrate and to re-arrange whatever music of his they chose for this most innovative production.
And so we were offered extracts from his classical compositions, his movie scores, and his later career as a jazz pianist and singer.
That included two recordings of Bennett himself singing; and listening to this eclectic pot pourri of his life as a composer begged the question: when or where have we ever heard of anything like this happening before?
Missing from the mix was any reference to Bennett’s best known opera The Mines of Sulphur, which I had seen in Wexford in 2008 – the year the new opera house down there had opened.
But then of course not all of Fitzgerald’s text was to be found here either, but its ghosts were palpable, tangible, mesmerising.
Daisy’s green light was there, but not Eckleburg’s giant ‘eyes’, in the Valley of the Ashes, at Wilson’s Garage.
And the character of Wolfshiem had gone too, as had a second gun-shot at fall of curtain.
David Nixon is a conviction choreographer and that unblinking commitment was in evidence in all of his dancers in principal roles.
If Busby Berkeley had directed this he would have called it ‘Gold Diggers of 1922’.
On 10 April, in Belfast, Benjamin Mitchell (Wilson), Victoria Sibson (Myrtle) and Giuliano Contadini (Nick) impressed no end, while Hannah Bateman (Jordan), Kenneth Tindall (Tom), Martha Leebolt (Daisy) and Tobias Batley (Gatsby) were world class.
The only other Northern Ballet production I’m sure I’ve seen, in the Grand Opera House some years ago, was their interpretation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and it was a performance I shall never forget.
David Nixon is probably not short of ideas for his next realist fiction derived ballets, but I am going to suggest he considers Alain-Fournier’s only novel Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), the greatest novel about adolescence in European literature.
This Great Gatsby production continues its tour, from 16 April until 18 May in Milton Keynes, Cardiff, Norwich and London.
Details on www.northernballet.com
George Fleeton is presenting The Glenn Miller Story (1954), featuring James Stewart, in the Queen’s Film Theatre Belfast on May 12.
His musical Tribute to Maria Callas, on the ninetieth anniversary of her birth, will be given in Calary, Co. Wicklow on 5 July, with soprano Norah King and pianist Aoife O’Sullivan.
Meanwhile further Fleeton Reviews, here on Down News, will include Zeffirelli’s film La Traviata (which opened the thirteenth Belfast Film Festival); Brian Friel’s play Translations; and Handel’s Giulio Cesare, live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera House New York.