The first scene of Act 4 of Verdi’s Aida, the Judgement Scene, is one of the Italian master’s supreme dramatic constructions. The entire 20 minute scene consists of dramatic exposition. There are no arias or traditional ensemble pieces. There’s not even a melody typical of what one expects in an Italian opera. But every note is apposite to Amneris’s anguish at being rejected by the man she loves and then overcome with grief and anger at the lethal fate that looms before him. Amneris has no aria in Aida, but this scene requires a mezzo-soprano of extraordinary power and expression. Only a truly great singer can fully realize the part. The orchestra is an equal participant with the singers. Many conductors do not realize the full impact of the orchestral explosions that punctuate the most emotionally intense moments of the scene.
Below are seven interpretations of this scene by seven of the greatest mezzos of the past 50 years. Except for the first selection they start with the music that follows the exit of Radames.
First here is the entire scene. This is from a 2007 Met performance under the pedestrian direction of Kazushi Ono. Radames is Roberto Alagna and Ramfis is Vitalij Kowaljow. Amneris is the stupendous American mezzo Dolora Zajick (born 1952). She has sung this role 80 times at the Met. She is in all respects the perfect Verdi mezzo. Power, high notes,dramatic intensity – she has the whole package. Zajick Aida Judgement scene
Giulietta Simionato (1910-2010) was a mezzo who could sing virtually anything in the Italian and French repertory and do so at the highest level. In 1966 she retired and married the Italian physician Cesare Frugoni who was almost 30 years her senior. My Italian physician friends had great fun relating how she had spent all his money. This recording was made during a Tokyo performance in 1961. There are some static and pops on it, but the Simionato’s great voice and interpretation comes through. Simionato Aida Judgement scene 1961
Shirley Verrett (1931-2010) was an elegant singer who sang soprano roles as well as the great mezzo parts. She did not sing Amneris often – only one time at the Met. But when she did she had all the vocal an dramatic equipment needed for the part. This excerpt was taken from a performance mounted by the BBC in 1971. Verrett’s emotional character is palpable. Verrett Aida Judgement scene
Fiorenza Cossotto (born 1937) was the leading Italian mezzo from about the mid 60s to the mid 80s. Amneris was one of her signature roles she sang it at the Met 31 times including a televised performance in 1985 under James Levine’s baton. Levine gets all the power and emphasis of the orchestral thunderbolts that too often seem more like marshmallows rather than messages from Jove. The reading of the part shows how a great Amneris can steal the opera. Cossotto Aida Judgement scene 1985
Elena Obraztsova (born 1939) is a Soviet and then Russian mezzo who achieved great success in both Russia and the West. She has sung 54 performance at the Met, eight of them as Amneris all in 1976. She has the power, projection, and panache that makes her a great Verdi mezzo. Obraztsova Aida Judgement scene 1988
Grace Bumbry (born 1937) sang Amneris 36 times at the Met. Like her colleague Verrett she too sang soprano roles. I have a number of recordings of the Judgement Scene by her earlier in her career, but the one I like to most was recorded in 1991, five years after she sang her last performance at the Met. Fifty four years old her interpretation had grown since she first sang the part at the Met in 1975., Perhaps she had to husband her breath a bit, but her intonation and projection of the part had grown. Bumbry Aida Judgement scene 1991
Olga Borodina (born 1963) is a Russian singer who thus far has sung 154 performances at the Met. Of these 35 have been as Amneris. She has rich mezzo that has a compete technique. He vocal production is smooth and powerful across its entire range. Borodina Aida Judgement scene 2001
Take your pick. All seven are extraordinary.