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Tony Bennett, Placido Domingo sing duets on latest albums

This image released by ABC shows singer Tony Bennett left Dominican singer Juan Luis Guerrduring an appearance daytime talk show

This image released by ABC shows singer Tony Bennett, left, and Dominican singer Juan Luis Guerra during an appearance on the daytime talk show "The View," Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 in New York. Bennett released his second duets album, "Viva Duets," with various Latin musicians including Guerra on Monday. (AP Photo/ABC, Lou Rocco)

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Updated: November 29, 2012 6:22AM

Two music legends, Tony Bennett and Placido Domingo, offer object lessons in the art of ensemble singing on two recent releases:

Tony Bennett, “Viva Duets” (Columbia) ★★★

“Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum.” That’s the first line of “The Best Is Yet to Come,” the Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh standard written for and introduced in 1962 by Tony Bennett, and which leads off this stellar collection of duets with Latin music hitmakers. A longtime signature tune, it also echoes Bennett’s personal philosophy. At 86, he’s still growing and going strong, as “Viva Duets” affirms.

The third in a series, following Bennett’s “Duets” (2006) and “Duets II” (2011), “Viva” leans heavily on the Sony roster (one ringer is Dominican maestro Juan Luis Guerra, who records for Capitol Latin). That leads to some unlikely and dubious pairings, such as Vicentico, former leader of Argentina’s rock/ska quartet Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, on “Cold, Cold Heart” and bachata phenom Romeo Santos on “Rags to Riches.” Sony execs even trundled in Anglo pop thrush Christina Aguilera, whose only connection to Latin music is her last name.

The Sony connection probably explains why Mexican superstar Luis Miguel, a Warner Bros. artist and a master of the crooning style, doesn’t appear to lend some ol’ Luismi magic to “Viva.”

Despite the presence of all these Latin legends, it’s Bennett who adds the “ole!” Most of the songs here date to his early career; he’s sung them countless times, and yet he finds new meaning and subtle shadings in chestnuts such as “Just in Time” (with Guerra), “I Wanna Be Around” (with Guatemala’s Ricardo Arjona) and “The Good Life” (with Venezuela’s Franco de Vita). Though his collaborators are working out of their idioms, Bennett establishes a warm rapport with his much younger, mostly pop-based partners.

The arrangements by Jorge Calandrelli (Barbra Streisand, Luis Miguel) stick to the jazz quartet and string orchestra formats, save for “Return to Me” (“Regresa a Mi”) with Mexico’s ranchera great Vicente Fernandez, which truly goes Latin. Recorded at Chente’s ranch in Guadalajara, with a lush ensemble of mariachi strings and guitars, “Return to Me” serves as the disc’s emotional heart. As Bennett and Fernandez gracefully trade off verses in English and Spanish, they reach an easy cultural summit in this ersatz Neapolitan-style tune (popularized in 1957 by Dean Martin).

It’s the real plum of “Viva Duets,” and if Bennett keeps up this standard, the best is still yet to come.

Placido Domingo, “Songs” (Sony Classical) ★★½

Billed as “legendary songs sung by a legend,” this disc is certainly that. The first pop album in more than 20 years by opera’s reigning superstar, “Songs” shows Domingo, 71, in fine voice — a remarkable achievement, since most opera singers have long retired by this age. Though he gives impassioned solo perfomances, in four languages, on standards made famous by Pedro Infante, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Jacques Brel, he un­fortunately teams up with several chuckleheads for this disc’s duets.

The worst offender, pop/Broadway star Harry Connick Jr., should know better. On “Time After Time,” he starts off with a spoken intro of “Hey, Placido, what do you think of that girl over there?” and then adds more spoken interludes throughout the ballad. Just jaw-dropping.

For the “Dancing With the Stars”/lace doily crowd, we get duets with Megan Hilty (!), Katherine Jenkins (!!) and Susan Boyle (!!!). What, Celine Dion wasn’t available?

If you’re a hard-core Domingo fan, you might not be deterred by “Songs.” But the world’s greatest tenor deserves much better.

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