This is not exactly the Mario Lanza "best-of" album its title might imply; it consists of recordings made during the last 18 months of the great crossover tenor's life, when he was beginning to suffer serious effects from the health problems that killed him in the fall of 1959. Still, it's hard to hear much of an effect from those problems -- a diminution of sheer vocal power in the selections from Rudolf Friml's musical The Vagabond King that make up the second half of the disc, perhaps, but no loss of the singer's broad, generous lyric impulse. Lanza was an operatic star who never quite got the chance to be an opera star. He took the lead role in the biopic The Great Caruso and sang Italian songs like those heard on the first half of the disc, but substance abuse brought him down just as he was preparing a sustained effort to reach the operatic stage. It's hard to imagine a career like his flourishing in the present day: there's plenty of crossover music, certainly, but no place in the pop world for a singer with a big Italian voice. After you hear this album, you'll feel that's a shame. The Neapolitan songs that open the disc are period pieces; a few of them have cheesy wordless backing choruses and odd arrangements with extended harmonies, drawn from the language of musical comedy, that don't quite fit. Still, they're nothing less than irresistible. On the Vagabond King selections, a few unreleased tracks from soprano Judith Raskin are added to make a rough outline of the whole show. The opening "Drinking Song" may cause one to wish that Lanza hadn't been so quick to affirm that "a flagon of wine will do." But sample the "Nocturne" and see if you don't agree that it's one of the great love serenades on records. RCA's Living Stereo sound was a major engineering accomplishment in the beginning, and the SACD remastering here is stupendous -- as good as it gets. Every bit of orchestral detail is there in total clarity. Check this album out and learn why an operatic singer was once at the top of the pop charts.
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