Giant Among Giants

By Jonathan Tichler

Cornell MacNeil, who starred as Scarpia in Tosca in the Met’s first telecast of the opera, originally broadcast in 1978 and streamed this week, was, as F. Paul Driscoll of Opera News explained, “a great baritone in an era of great baritones ... MacNeil’s performances had singular musical richness, and moral and intellectual complexity that were his alone. MacNeil may have had rivals, but he had no equals.”

The Minneapolis native made his Met debut in the title role of Rigoletto in 1959 and went on to sing a record 102 performances of the role with the company, more than Giuseppe De Luca (96), Leonard Warren (89), and Robert Merrill (56), to name other celebrated interpreters. (He is pictured at top with tenor Alfredo Kraus as the Duke in a 1966 performance.)

MacNeil was on the Met roster for every season from 1959 until 1987, singing 641 performances of 26 roles, before bidding the company farewell as Scarpia (pictured below)a role he sang 92 times with the company, including an additional telecast that last season. (As frequent Met Scarpias go, he holds second place, yielding the top spot to the legendary Antonio Scotti, who performed it 217 times with the Met, including the company premiere.)

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MacNeil’s voice was enormous, with a ringing top that served him well in Verdi at the Met, including the company premiere of Nabucco (pictured below), as well as Amonasro in Aida, Don Carlo in Ernani and La Forza del Destino, Miller in Luisa Miller, Iago in Otello, Germont in La Traviata, Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, Monforte in I Vespri Siciliani, and the title roles of Falstaff, Macbeth, and Simon Boccanegra.

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Other important roles for him were Alfio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Giovanni in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Barnaba in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Trinity Moses in the company premiere of Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Michele in Puccini’s Il Tabarro, and the title roles in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.


Jonathan Tichler is the Met’s Photo Editor.