The great American baritone Cornell MacNeil died July 15. MacNeil was part of a grand succession of great American baritones that included Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, MacNeil, Sherill Milnes, and Thomas Hampson. By contrast, there has been only one great American tenor who reached a comparable level of excellence as these baritones – Richard Tucker.
MacNeil was born in Minneapolis on September 24, 1922. After studying with Friederich Schorr, among others, he made his New York debut at the New York City Opera in 1953. His Met debut was as Rigoletto on March 21, 1959. This was when Leonard Warren was still alive which shows how much the company thought of him. He sang at the Met until 1987 – a total of 642 performances.
He had a huge voice, as big or bigger than Warren’s. His high notes were volcanic in impact. He was a vocal phenomenon. His gift was so great that he eventually overwhelmed it by hard use. If you listen closely even at the height of his career you can hear the barest hint of the instability, eventually a large wobble, that marked the last dozen or so years of his career.
Titta Ruffo, who was to baritones what Caruso was to tenors, said he never taught because he never really knew how to sing. [I never knew how to sing; that is why my voice went by the time I was fifty. I have no right to capitalize on my former name and reputation and try to teach something I never knew how to do myself. Titta Ruffo, My Parabola – English edition 1995, p 339] Of course he could sing, but nature gave him so much that he didn’t have to learn all the niceties of vocal technique. MacNeil was this type of baritone.
Here is Jack Rance’s arioso from the first act of Puccini’s La Fanciulla Del West. This is taken from the complete recording of the opera made in 1958 with Tebaldi and Del Monaco. The voice is fresh and lustrous. Minnie, dalla mia casa. MacNeil displays a lot more voice in this part than is typically offered by those who sing Rance – Puccini liked tenors more than baritones. This recording clearly announces that a great talent has arrived.
It was as a Verdi baritone that MacNeil was most famous. Gran Dio…Oh de’verd’anni miei is a great set piece at the beginning of Act 3 of Ernani. MacNeil bowled over New York audiences when he first sang Don Carlo in this opera in 1962. This is a force of nature.
Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera is one of Verdi’s greatest baritone inventions. For some reason unknown to me MacNeil sang the part at the Met only one time. Here is what the New York audience missed. Eri tu
Baritones sing Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci for one reason only – the Prologue. Jay Harrison wrote this about MacNeil’s first appearance as Tonio at the Met in 1959: Mr. MacNeil provided a flow of sound that was as rich as cream and of an equivalent texture. The thunder of applause that followed his “Prologue” was in itself a tribute to a massive talent, and throughout the opera he continued to sing with a wondrous glow of sonority.
Finally, the great Verdi baritone role – Rigoletto. MacNeil sang the role at the Met an astounding 104 times. Cortigiani, vil razza is at the core of the opera. Most baritones can’t bring it off. It requires great declamation followed by poignant lyricism. It is the great test of the Italian baritone.
The great Verdi baritone is perhaps opera’s rarest bird. There is no one now active who can reach the level MacNeil reached at his best. Only Leonard Warren was in the same class as MacNeil. RIP.