Cornell MacNeil’s father was a dentist and his mother a singer who had studied with Ernestine Schumann-Heink. He was rejected for military service during World War II as a result of his asthma and so worked as a lathe operator while, on his mother’s advice, undertaking singing lessons with the retired baritone Friedrich Schorr at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut and later with Virgilio Lazzari, Richard Marzollo and Otto Guth in New York.
Before the end of the war MacNeil joined the Radio City Music Hall Glee Club where he also made backstage announcements; later he appeared in Broadway musicals. Although his operatic stage debut came in 1950 when Menotti cast him as the male lead in the first Philadelphia performance of The Consul, he continued to have voice lessons while working night-shifts in a watch factory.
In 1953 MacNeil first appeared with the New York City Opera, as Germont père / La traviata opposite Frances Yeend, remaining with the company until the autumn of 1956 and among other roles singing the title part in Rigoletto, Escamillo / Carmen, Valentin / Faust and Stephano in the American premiere of Martin’s The Tempest (Der Sturm). He first sang with the San Francisco Opera in 1955 as Escamillo and with the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1957 as Lescaut / Manon Lescaut opposite Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Björling, immediately followed by Alfio / Cavalleria rusticana. He returned in 1958 as Ford / Falstaff and Sharpless / Madama Butterfly.
During the spring of 1959 MacNeil made his debut at La Scala, Milan, substituting as Carlo / Ernani with such success that he was offered a contract by the general manager, Ghiringhelli. However, shortly after this he first sang at the Metropolitan Opera, New York as Rigoletto, again appearing as a substitute and without rehearsal; and chose to remain with the Met for the remainder of his career, singing twenty-six roles in more than 600 appearances. His final performance there was as Scarpia in December 1987.
MacNeil excelled in the most demanding Verdi baritone parts, such as the title roles in Nabucco, Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra and Falstaff, as well as Iago / Otello, Amonasro / Aida, di Luna / Il trovatore and Renato / Un ballo in maschera. Other parts he sang with success at the Met included Barnaba / La Gioconda, Tonio / Pagliacci, Scarpia / Tosca, Michele / Il tabarro, Gianciotto / Francesca da Rimini and Trinity Moses / Aufstieg und Fall des Stadt Mahagonny.
At the Royal Opera House, London MacNeil first appeared in 1964 as Macbeth, and he sang at other major international operas houses including the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, the Paris Opera and the Vienna State Opera; as well as throughout Italy (Rome, Genoa, Naples and Palermo), Barcelona, Lisbon and Central / South America (Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro).
Although in 1988 MacNeil sang Giorgio Germont to his son Walter’s Alfredo at Glyndebourne, he retired from the operatic stage the same year after medical tests showed he had a possible blockage of the carotid artery.
His possession of a large voice with a particularly strong top made MacNeil an ideal Verdi baritone. Contemporary critics, while sometimes not enthusiastic about his dramatic ability, would frequently praise his singing; and certainly his many remaining sound recordings – both official and unofficial – reveal a voice of considerable splendour.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).