In 2010, Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet made a welcome return to the Metropolitan Opera stage after an absence of over a century. In this modern but orthodox production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, which originated in Geneva, the tormented Danish prince is played by the British baritone Simon Keenlyside who, for a while, made this role his own and gives a memorable performance here. Ophélie is played by the German soprano Marlis Petersen, who at relatively short notice replaced the indisposed Nathalie Dessay.

The opera was first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1868. It is in the style of a French “grand opera” and is therefore in five acts including the obligatory ballet-divertissement at the beginning of Act IV (although omitted in this production). Thomas’s librettists had to condense a very long play into a reasonable opera libretto and they did a decent job except for the ending, when Hamlet doesn’t die after killing Claudius, but is acclaimed King. Although this ending didn’t worry the Paris audience at the time, nowadays directors find it problematic and often consider alternative endings. Caurier and Leiser have avoided a happy ending and instead, Hamlet expires at the end from a fatal wound inflicted on him by Laërte in a duel.

There are not many 19th-century operas where the hero is played by a baritone and Mr. Keenlyside sings the role with relish. His voice is gloriously rich, his diction is exemplary and as always, he totally inhabits the role – Hamlet’s anguish is palpable. There are many highlights, including the last scene of Act I when he vows to revenge his father, his feigned madness in the Act II banquet scene and, of course, his famous soliloquy “Étre ou ne pas étre” (“To be or not to be”). Mr. Keenlyside’s is a powerful, totally convincing performance.

Dramatically, it is Jennifer Larmore’s Gertrude who matches Mr. Keenlyside’s presence on stage and she also has some of the best music. She cuts an impressive and sometimes terrifying figure as the guilty mother, singing with intensity in expressing her tormented state of mind. As Ophélie, Ms. Petersen sings with precision and elegance, although against Mr. Keenlyside’s spontaneous expressions, she can seem a little uptight and mannered. However, considering lack of rehearsal time (she flew in just before the première), her overall performance is admirable. Her highest notes may be a little strained, but she brings off the character’s famous “mad scene” with aplomb.

Met veteran James Morris sings King Claudius with assurance, although his characterization is at times rather two-dimensional. Tenor Toby Spence, meanwhile, brings fresh-voiced lyricism as Laërte, Ophélie’s brother.

The production is serviceable if a little nondescript. Apart from the vaguely modern setting, the directorial team hasn’t reinterpreted the opera, so the story is easy to follow. The stage is almost bare, consisting of movable high walls suggesting the vastness of the castle of Elsinore, and the lighting is mostly dark and atmospheric, something which is particularly effective in the ghost scenes.

In the pit, Louis Langrée conducts with flair and feeling for this colourful score. From the outset, he captures the opera’s brooding nature and sense of foreboding. The orchestral playing is lush yet incisive and, as usual, is of a consistently high standard with beautiful contributions from solo horn, trombone and the amazing saxophone in the “play scene” in Act II.

As Mr. Keenlyside comments in the interval interview (another perk of Met Opera on Demand) maybe this opera has suffered because people don’t see enough of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Thomas’s version. However, taken on its own terms, it is a moving and atmospheric work in the French “grand opera” tradition and Mr. Keenlyside is certainly a magnificent champion of the work.