04 May 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Bizet: “Carmen”

In this 1983 feature for German television, Karajan’s last recording of “Carmen” from the same year is presented as “the first ever complete opera recording for cd”. Karajan talks about the benefits and opportunities of a new medium he had significantly supported.


Although Georges Bizet was a stunning piano virtuoso and composed various operas and orchestral works, he is often seen as a “one hit wonder” because “Carmen” was such a tremendous success that it outshines all his other achievements.

Bizet, who died at the age of 36, never witnessed the acclaim accorded to his last work, which failed at its first performance in Paris in 1875 only to succeed resoundingly three months after his death with the production in Vienna. “Carmen” is the most famous opera in the French repertoire and one of the most famous ever. The “opéra comique” with the Spanish story and Spanish music has inspired countless other versions, orchestral works, ballets and musicals.

Like many other main works of the repertoire, Karajan “practised” Bizet’s opera in his Ulm and Aachen years. After the war, in 1954, he caused a stir with two concert performances in the Vienna Musikverein conducting the Vienna Symphony and featuring Giulietta Simionato and Nicolai Gedda in the main parts.

“For the packed audiences in the old-gold gloom of the Musikverein those late October evenings, it was like stepping out of a shuttered room into the sun’s noonday stare. The Vienna Symphony played on the beat, not behind it; and their tone took on a cleanness and spareness the audience was unaccustomed to, even with Karajan on the rostrum.”

Richard Osborne

In January 1955, Karajan conducted a new production at the Scala, again with Simionato, this time with Giuseppe di Stefano. There had been plans to ask Pablo Picasso to design the sets. Karajan demurred: “Alright,” he said, “but who’s going to tell him if we don’t like his sketches…?”

Finally, they chose Ita Maximowna. “Recalling how Karajan had rehearsed Simionato (and a monkey), Maximowna declared Karajan to be the finest Carmen she had ever seen. ‘It’s just a pity he couldn’t also sing the role,’ she added. (Osborne)” Between 1957 and 1961, in his first years as managing director of the Vienna State Opera, Karajan conducted “Carmen” 9 times, mostly with Jean Madeira in the title-role.

His first studio recording was made in 1963. Karajan engaged an Italian-American cast: Franco Corelli and Robert Merrill, his discovery Mirella Freni as Micaëla and Leontyne Price as Carmen.

During the recording session, President John F. Kennedy was shot and Price, who was very affected, had to be comforted by the rest of the team. “Just about the next thing they recorded was the Card Scene. No wonder it sounds as it does. (Osborne)”.

Karajan’s next “Carmen” project was the Salzburg production with Grace Bumbry, only three years later. It was recorded and also filmed in the following year (with Karajan in a cameo as a guard!).

Gramophone wrote: “There’s some extremely potent singing from three of the leads (Bumbry, Vickers and Freni’s Micaëla), not least from Bumbry with a subtle range of dynamics that truly suggests both the almost obligatory compliment to a diva in this opera (‘sexy’) and a real sense of ironic humour.”

In this interview from 2020, Grace Bumbry talked to our colleague Julia Binek about her collaboration with Karajan.

Karajan’s last “Carmen” production started with the recording in 1983 (according to a feature on German television, it was the first complete opera recording for CD) featuring – as Osborne wrote – “Agnes Baltsa’s angry, earthy, cynical bitch of a Carmen, a fine José (José Carreras) and an exceptional Escamillo (José van Dam).”

The recording remains controversial. Some critics really disliked it, but Gramophone wrote: “In sum, Karajan gives us a marvellous panorama of the work, a sophisticated traversal of the piece that doesn’t exclusive a realization of its more intimate side.”

The associated stage production took place only in 1985 at the Salzburg Festival and was repeated the following summer – not with Baltsa who was sent off stage by Karajan in the dress-rehearsal because of an argument. Helga Müller-Molinari stepped in.

Richard Osborne “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

Stay Informed