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.
Inspired by Ralph Moore's excellent review I bought a mint second hand copy from Zoverstocks for 66 pence. Even the booklet with full text and translation and the slipcase were perfect. Bargain of a lifetime. I heard this on LP and knew I was going to enjoy Price's Carmen. The Escamillo and Micaela are as good as you will hear anywhere. It is very rare to hear a Micaela hit all the notes dead centre as here. Enchanting. Corelli's French is a little interesting. One star deducted for the recording which although atmospheric is sometimes unreasonably distant. Bizet wrote Carmen in exasperation at the huge success at the Opera Comique of La Dame Blanche, a lovely work which should be heard more often. Well Bizet succeeded in producing the most popular French opera of all time. So much so that the Grand Opera enthusiasts hijacked it and it was for a long time performed mostly with Giraud's recitatives instead of the original spoken dialogue. This is the Grand Opera version but Herbie makes a very good job of papering over the joins. The drama is lessened though, most noticeably in the Act 3 knife fight which is severely shortened. I am currently much enjoying Jakub Hrusa's conducing of this work at Glyndebourne. Some of his tempi make Herbie sound severely conventional. But both really relish the brilliantly coloured scoring. This Karajan recording is certainly one of my top five joining Reiner, Cluytens, Beecham and Maazel (Erato),
The voices on this live recording are rather recessed but it's an extraordinary cast, experienced conducting from Pretre, fine playing from the La Scala orchestra and it has really guts and atmosphere. Both Cossotto and Domingo on peak form and Van Dam a more musical Escamillo than usual.