To imagine that I have anything new to say about Maria Callas’ 1957 performance of Anna Bolena at La Scala is sheer pomposity. Enough ink and pixels (along with some blood and tears judging by the fervency of the Callas Cult) have been spilled. La Scala’s Memories series has released a handsome hardcover book and CD set, commemorating the evening with the original program, essays, libretto, and plenty of pictures.

To say the least, it was an exciting night: a gala with stars, enormous sets, and a major comeback for a neglected bel canto queen. Callas was joined by Giulietta Simionato (Giovanna Seymour), Gianni Raimondi (Riccardo Percy), and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Enrico VIII), with Gianandrea Gavazzeni at the podium.  

The program notes admit that “for some of the voices it was perhaps not a good night, one or two high notes were maybe less controlled,” but that has not stopped this recording from being an important benchmark standard. Quibbling aside, it doesn’t get much better than this.

With its generous thirty or so pages of pictures, this release fills in some holes left by the tragically slim Callas videography. We get pictures of La Divina in action from various angles, the grandiose sets in all their glory, as well as some backstage candids of the cast. The book portion includes the original program notes, written when Anna Bolena had lapsed in the repertoire. A Met simulcast this is not, but we get the idea.

While the packaging of the set radiates luxury, the rest of the contents fail to deliver. The most significant fault is in the audio, which sounds identical to the widely released EMI edition. The sonics are murky, without much sympathy for anything high or loud, and several other available remasters are preferable.

Equally unfortunate are the essay translations, which can be called slapdash at best.  Classical music fans are usually ready to forgive sketchy slipcover translations; this, however, is a hardcover book, not a stapled leaflet. That the Italian essays by Angelo Foletto bulge with facts at the seams of their word count, doesn’t help. The English versions appears to have been punctuated by a francophone, and stylistic inconsistencies, creative spellings, and a pseudo-intellectual tone, make for rather bland reading. It’s best to stick to the pictures.

This is a landmark recording that most opera fans will want in their libraries – but better to forgo the packaging and search out a remaster in better sound. You don’t need frills when you have singing like this.