Most helpful positive review
Much better than its detractors say
on 18 January 2014
It has become fashionable and even de rigueur to patronise this recording as "as French as Wiener Schnitzel" but I've done a lot of listening to a lot of different versions of "the world's favourite opera" and although ultimately I completely understand why many favour an authentic French recording such as that by Cluytens, Bizet's masterpiece is now world property and if you examine this set objectively, you will find that it has a great deal going for it. Of course, the other factor is automatic Karajan-bashing, whereby the works of this great conductor must be routinely derided by the ill-informed. I shall say no more other than to remark that, despite the presence of Jonas Kaufmann, Simon Rattle's "Carmen", with Kozena as about as seductive as a utilities bill, is very weak tea indeed.
First of all, beautiful sound with some very effective stereo effects, such as that of the boys marching in from the right to stage left, the distant bells and bugles, and the general sense of air and space to suggest town squares and bull-rings.
Secondly, a largely French-speaking supporting cast; only the four principals aren't French and of those, Robert Merrill was an excellent linguist, Price and Freni sing good, standard, "international" French and Corelli...well, is Corelli. Actually, he has patches where his struggle with the language is considerably less apparent but there are moments when it's just as well that he's singing a Latin anti-hero. To be fair, Domingo isn't so much better for Solti although by the time he gets to the second recording Maazel made (forget the first with a quasi-voiceless Moffo and a bellowing Corelli) his French has improved and he makes a major contribution to what I still consider the best, all-round compromise recording.
But back to this Karajan recording: The VPO plays wonderfully and although one sometimes misses a certain earthiness in the gorgeous sounds they and Karajan make, this is not a performance without energy. The singing is divine: Mirella Freni in her first contribution to major opera recording is perfect, with her melting, lyric tone and spinto reserves for the big emotional out-pourings. Merrill is the epitome of machismo, as good as Massard for Pretre, and Price rivals Callas for smoky allure. Like Callas, a true soprano sfogato, Price could, before the lower register became too cloudy, inject heft and a dusky timbre into the bottom of her voice while retaining brilliance up top. If you love Corelli, as I do, and also enjoy big-voiced tenors such as Del Monaco and today's Kaufmann as Don José, you will revel in his trumpeting tones and famous diminuendos.
In short, the reputation of this recording - degraded by the usual suspects at the "Gramophone" and by such as Rodney Milnes in "Opera on Record" - is unfair and it stands up well against versions by Solti while being considerably more exciting than the de Burgos recording with Vickers and Bumbry, whose French is no better and who commit the worse fault of simply sounding dull, whereas Price and Corelli are visceral in the bloody dénouement.