The main attraction is, of course, Giulietta Simionato. She was neither so young at the time of recording (she was in fact 44!) nor so exclusively Verdian as some reviewers try to make her out. She is an absolutely terrific Carmen, sultry and seductive, bold and audacious. Vocally she has very few peers and no superiors; I have seldom heard all those tricky trills and mischievous twists in Carmen's part sung so flawlessly. Dramatically she may have more peers – but hardly any superiors. All of her of vocal brilliance is put here to a very fine dramatic use indeed. Some francophones may find her French pronunciation idiosyncratic, but it doesn't bother me at all.
Nicolai Gedda and Michel Roux don't even begin to match Simionato's intensity, but both are more than serviceable. Gedda's voice and temperament are a little too light for the part of Don Jose. Nevertheless, he pulls it off very decently, especially the more lyrical moments such as "The Flower Song" which is indeed ravishing. The baritone of Michel Roux is nothing like the velvety monster of Robert Merrill, yet he infuses the Toreador’s song with a welcome dose of passion; his vocal acting in the recitatives is thoroughly convincing. Hilde Güden makes a surprisingly compelling Micaela, not exactly the most grateful part there is.
Karajan is at his element. He conducts here, not the Wiener Philharmoniker as you might expect in the Grosser Saal of Vienna's Musikverein, but the Wiener Symphoniker. This orchestra is generally regarded as
second best, but it is hardly inferior to their illustrious opponents. What's
more, in the early 1950s Karajan had a very fruitful association with the
Wiener Symphoniker, including several extensive European tours. So he well knew
how to coax them into giving superb rendition of Bizet's score. The conducting
has all the drive, precision, passion and drama that one is right to ask for in Carmen. Vienna
The sound is, for its time, impeccable. The guys in the Austrian Radio evidently did a great job. The clarity, the depth, and the dynamic range are pretty impressive for a 1954 broadcast. The worst you'll have to put up with are several crude climaxes when the volume is a bit too much than the microphones can take. But that can't be helped and is a very minor price to pay. The balance between orchestra, singers and choir is excellent throughout.
If you want but one Carmen with Karajan, be sure to get his 1963 studio take for RCA. Sumptuously recorded, with Price and Corelli in stupendous form (and a somewhat stiff but still great Merrill), it is a joy to listen. The version on the DVD boasts an irresistibly hot Grace Bumbry in the title role (she looks perfect and does more than vocal justice to the part, although her acting leaves something to be desired) and a powerful performance by Jon Vickers as Don Jose, even if Justino Diaz is a vocally mediocre (yet visually stunning) Escamillo. Weird direction, drab sets and inferior sound further downgrade this otherwise excellent film. Karajan's 1983 digital take is well recorded and features Agnes Baltsa as a fiery Carmen, Jose Carreras as a subdued but moving Don Jose (fabulous pianissimo in "The Flower Song"!), and Jose van Dam unfortunately miscast as the Toreador. Karajan's conducting, though not as impassioned as in 1954 or 1963, is far from soporific. However, the inclusion of the original spoken dialogues is problematic; while it may please the puritans, I find them unbearably dull.
If any of these three recordings appeals to you, you are well-advised to try Karajan's 1954 radio broadcast. Overall and apart from the sound quality, it is rivalled only by his 1963 studio recording. For fans of Simionato this Carmen is of course indispensable. It is a generous tribute to her neglected versatility.