And so, of the long tradition of great American Verdi baritones, only one remains. Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill and now Cornell MacNeil are no longer with us. Sherrill Milnes is the only one still extant, and long may he continue. Milnes, though, retired some years ago and despite the good offices of Thomas Hampson (whose baritone has never really suited the Italian composer) America still awaits their successor. MacNeil, who has died at the age of 88, exhibited all the hallmarks of that tradition – a broad, muscular voice that was yet burnished and smooth (at least until the acid of time corroded it), coupled with long-breathed legato.
The son of a Minneapolis singer (his mother) and a dentist father, MacNeil's early public appearances included a speaking role, as the backstage announcer at Radio City Music Hall. As the New York Times relates, "it was his sonorous baritone that announced the news to Radio City audiences of both the German and Japanese surrenders." But MacNeil, who studied with the great Wagnerian baritone Friedrich Schorr, had an important opera debut in 1950, in the leading role of Menotti's hugely successful The Consul.
After a glittering start to his glamorous career, he joined New York City Opera and then, in 1959, the Metropolitan Opera. Both those debuts were in Verdi roles, Germont and Rigoletto respectively, and it was Verdi and to a lesser extent Puccini that would define his career (his toad-lke Scarpia can be seen in at least two filmed stage Tosca productions – one, with Luciano Pavarotti and Shirley Verrett, recently issued by Decca and another, alongside Hildegard Behrens and Plácido Domingo, on DG). A fairly extensive discography, some live, some unofficial, captured many of his most popular roles, though sadly his Rigoletto is on a surprisingly flawed EMI set conducted by Francesco Molinari Pradelli, where everyone sounds below their best. If you can find it, he is better heard in the role on a 1962 Decca recording for Nino Sanzogno.
Perhaps his finest hour on record is his Jack Rance in Puccini's La fanciulla del West for Decca and Franco Capuana, of which Edward Greenfield has noted approvingly in Gramophone, "Cornell MacNeil gives Jack Rance an apt element of nobility, making him far more than a Wild West Scarpia." Sadly, on the famous Franco Zeffirelli film of La Traviata, MacNeil's Germont is imposing of presence but caught too late vocally.
Wisely, MacNeil largely stuck to the repertoire he was born for. Although he once told a television interviewer that the one big new role he'd love to take on was Wagner's Hans Sachs, he stayed away from such voice-wrecking adventures. In so doing, he enjoyed a long career with the Met as his base and cemented his place in American opera history.