La Sonnambula Met Dessay Hamlet

In some ways Shakespeare’s play, which ends with dead bodies all over the stage, is more melodramatic than Thomas’s work. This is an uncommonly literate opera; its music frames and supports the text with intelligence and subtlety. The opera has been dismissed as a work that merely provides musical decoration for Shakespeare. But the score’s reticence is its selling point. If anything, the music too often stays out of the way of the story. Thomas never astonishes you with an ingenious musical stroke. He did not have that gift.

The drinking song in Act II is as catchy as “Libiamo” in “La Traviata,” yet effectively ambiguous. The scene in which Hamlet first sees the ghost of his father is chilling, with the echoes of the wedding banquet in the background and the restrained exchange between the two characters. The music for the troupe of players, with a slinky melody performed on saxophone (an enticing new instrument in Thomas’s day), is deliciously creepy. And there’s more.

This simple, well-traveled production sets the story in an indeterminate place. Agostino Cavalca’s costumes vaguely evoke the time of the opera’s composition. Christian Fenouillat’s sets essentially consist of two tall, curved, movable walls, with red-splotched painted interiors and streaked stone exteriors.

When Mr. Keenlyside first appears, dressed in what look like a rumpled long-sleeved undershirt and dingy trousers, his suspenders dangling from his sides, all scruffy and unshaved, he achingly conveys Hamlet’s impotency in the face of this crisis.

That this Hamlet is so consumed with himself makes the moments when he exposes his yearning all the more moving, especially the Act I love duet with Ophélie, in which Mr. Keenlyside buries his head in Ms. Petersen’s lap, amid the billowing folds of her creamy white dress.

The high point of Ophélie’s role is the mad scene. For me the elaborateness of the music, with its requisite coloratura roulades and passagework, seems too forced. But Ms. Petersen sang it impressively, looking every bit the jilted bride, sitting alone in a fleecy white dress amid the bouquets and remnants of her nonstart wedding to Hamlet.

The mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore brought earthy intensity to the role of the tormented Gertrude. In a prim royal gown and with her face framed by an eerily high hairline, she looked like some spectral figure out of Bergman’s “Seventh Seal.” The gravelly singing of the veteran bass James Morris, as Claudius, was appropriate to the character.

The versatile British tenor Toby Spence, in his Met debut, excelled in the short but crucial role of Laërte. And the stentorian bass-baritone David Pittsinger commanded the stage in his few appearances as the Ghost, dressed in ragtag robes like some prophet wandering the desert.

For all the stylish taste and craft that Thomas brought to this work, after a while this understated music begins to seem thin. Still, the Met is rendering a service to its patrons by presenting it. In decades of operagoing I had never seen a staged production.

By the way, this Met “Hamlet” does not end happily. For the 1869 British premiere of the work at Covent Garden in London, Thomas was persuaded to rewrite the ending to have Hamlet die after all. Until now this production had always used the happy ending. But for the Met the creative team made some trims and combined elements of both endings so that the ghost reappears, but Hamlet falls dead atop Ophélie’s corpse. It was an effective compromise. And really, what does it matter?

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Correction: March 19, 2010

A music review on Thursday about Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet,” at the Metropolitan Opera, misstated the number of years since it was last performed at the Met. It was 113 years ago, not 103.

French soprano Natalie Dessay is one the stars of today’s operatic world, thrilling audiences as both a singer and an actress. Now an admired interpreter of bel canto and lyric heroines such as Lucia di Lammermoor, Marie (La Figlia del Reggimento), Amina (La sonnambula), Pamina (Die Zauberflöte), Manon, Juliette and Ophélie (Hamlet), Dessay originally made her reputation with showpiece coloratura roles such as Offenbach’s Olympia, Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Strauss’ Zerbinetta.

Born in Lyon, Natalie Dessay grew up in Bordeaux. She first dreamed of becoming a dancer, but later studied acting and singing at the Bordeaux Conservatoire. She progressed with extraordinary rapidity, completing five years’ worth of study in just one year and graduating with First Prize at the age of twenty. In 1989, after a brief period in the chorus of the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, she entered France’s first Concours des Voix nouvelles and won second prize.

In 1992 she sang her first Olympia in Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann at Paris’s Opéra Bastille in a staging by Roman Polanski. The next year she was invited to the Vienna Staatsoper to sing Blondchen (Die Entführung aus dem Serail). In 1993 she was Olympia in the opening production for the rebuilt Opéra de Lyon and by 2001 she had performed the role in eight different stagings, including her debut appearance at La Scala in Milan. The 1990s also brought the Queen of the Night at Aix-en-Provence, Ophélie (Hamlet) in Geneva, Aminta (Die schweigsame Frau) in Vienna, Fiakermilli (Arabella) for her debut at the New York Met – followed by Olympia and Zerbinetta, Lakmé at the Opéra Comique, Eurydice in Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers in Lyon, and, in Paris, Morgana in Handel’s Alcina and the title role in Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol. Conductors for these appearances included Pierre Boulez, James Levine, James Conlon, William Christie and Marc Minkowski.

She also worked with Laurent Pelly, notably in Orphée aux Enfers (1997), for the first time in the role of Marie from La Figlia del Reggimento by Donizetti, as well as in Pelléas and Mélisande that was also recorded on DVD (2009).

More firsts follow in 2009 with Violetta in the summer in Santa Fe and Musetta at the Opéra de Paris in the autumn. Paris will also mount a new production of La Sonnambula for her in 2010. Her first appearances in La Sonnambula came in 2004 in Lausanne, Bordeaux, La Scala and Vienna (with Juan Diego Flórez) and her interpretation of Amina was recorded during concert performances in Lyon in November 2006 and released by Virgin Classics in autumn 2007.

Her 2 CD and DVD compilations Le Miracle d’une voix, released in 2006, have proved an enormous success, selling over 250,000 copies, each documenting her prowess as a singer and as an actress.

Her latest released album, Clair de Lune/i>, contains melodies by Debussy with Philippe Cassard at the piano. On 2012 fall, Haendel's Jules César at the Opera de Paris under the baton of Emmanuelle Haim is published by DVD.

The most part of her major roles are also available on DVD, all recorded with Virgin Classics.

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