Herbert von Karajan was certainly an ambitious devil. Not content with being a great conductor, he insisted on "dabbling" in film, making a series of opera movies. This Carmen is one of them, and it proves the conductor to be quite talented as a visual artist. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a cast this good, which is as close to perfect as you are likely to get.
The film itself is lovely to look at. The costumes are beautiful, the sets spacious and realistic, and quite gritty(appropriate, considering the setting and earthy subject matter), and the use of camera angles is revealing of character, glorious during some of the crowd scenes, frequently imaginative. The scene in the first act where the gypsy girls sit on the steps of the cigarette factory and languidly sing is colorful, artistically staged, worthy of a painting. The way Escamillo connects with his female admirers during the Toreador Song is well staged. The flamenco and ballet scenes(inserting music from L'Arlesienne) are choreographed superbly. And of course the closeups of Carmen at her most seductive or Don Jose at his most angst-ridden are priceless. One caveat, the film is dubbed, but the quality of the dubbing is very professional, most of the time it's hardly noticeable, rarely is it distracting.
On to the singing actors. John Vickers has his detractors, but I am not one of them. Critics suggest that his voice is not beautiful enough, but I find no evidence of this, particularly in this performance. His Flower Song is heart-rending, enough to melt the heart of any Carmen. His Don Jose has a soul, a wounded soul in fact, loyal(in love at least) to a murderous fault while aware of its own weaknesses. It's a mesmerizing performance.
Mirella Freni has the correct ingenuous beauty, as well as the vocal chops to pull off a ravishing performance as Micaela. It's not a large role for such a big name, but Freni makes it large through the sheer force of her lung power. Her act three aria is among the opera's, and this film's, highlights.
Justino Diaz is a suave, handsome Escamillo with a powerful baritone voice. The Toreador song is sometimes difficult to pull off, with singer and orchestra competing for center stage, but Diaz olds his own against the forces of the Weiner Philharmoniker.
As for Grace Bumbry, what can you say? Her Carmen is absolutely smoking HOT!!!! Not only is her Carmen among the best I've ever heard, it is probably THE best I have ever seen. Instead of playing Carmen as an oversexed mankiller, she brings layers of intelligence and sophistication to the role, which not only makes her character more logical, it makes the unfolding of events more logical as well, and, as a result, this is probably the most thoroughly satisfying Carmen from my experience. Simply astonishing!
Von Karajan and his orchestral forces give a vital interpretation of the score, slow at times but always involving. I noticed only one cut, in the final duet between Carmen and Don Jose. Overall, the sound quality is very good. From an aural standpoint, you aren't likely to find a better Carmen anywhere.
Nor from a visual standpoint. The filmmaking is surprisingly good, and the video transfer is superb, bringing a brightness and purity to the colorful images.