Fritz Wunderlich: Life and Legend
DVD DG00440 07304202

Back in 1966 I was a soldier in Germany finishing my obligatory 12 months of duty when Fritz Wunderlich died. I don’t remember that there were headlines in the papers or that the evening news was devoted to his untimely demise. And this corroborates with the sleeve notes of this interesting DVD telling us that “forty years after his tragic death, he is a far more potent presence through his recordings than he was during his lifetime.” At the time there was a feeling that the most talented German tenor had died but not that there were no other tenors around for his repertoire. Josef Traxel was still singing well.

Rudolf Schock was still the most popular tenor in his country and Ernst Kozub’s had the makings of a world career. And as to popularity and saleability the Hungarian Sandor Konya was at least Wunderlich’s equal. Moreover he recorded not only in German but also in the original Italian and was now a star of the Metropolitan and not a provincial tenor anymore.

Time and historical hindsight have changed a lot of these perceptions. Wunderlich is now widely and rightly recognized as the most outstanding Mozart tenor of the afterwar world (though especially in the German roles as he still had to prove himself in Italian) and has eclipsed Gedda’s fame. And let’s be honest: together with Caruso, Schmidt, Lanza and Björling he belongs to that category of tenors who owned part of their legend to their early death. As a result a lot of documentaries have been made to commemorate each decade of his passing away.

This is the latest and up to now the best one, even though some of Wunderlich’s adventures are still smoothed over as his wife Eva still lives. The tenor was quite a ladies man and it’s only in an interview in the bonus part that someone dares to make a remark on it. And his heavy drinking still seems to be a taboo though Lord Harewood in his memoirs wrote he never met anyone who surpassed Wunderlich in that domain. Looking at some of Wunderlich’s own footage where professional photographers were not at work one sees the change  into a heavy set face. One of the questions this documentary doesn’t answer is the opera gossip that though he fell from a stairs stumbling on his shoes’ laces, there is still the story that he was not too sure footed that fatal evening.

On some parts of the past there is more honesty. At last and contrary to some older documentaries the suicide of his father is mentioned; a father who left a wife with two young children in financial distress. The rest of Wunderlich’s tory is well told though as often with these documentaries one has to do with some awkwardness. Directors don’t like talking heads as it is well known that after more than thirty seconds the audience likes to zap. Therefore they tend to cover some interesting stories with very uninteresting pictures: the well-known cliché shots of interiors and exteriors of opera houses and some quite unnecessary images of an old car driving through Germany while we even get a hand and a few loose shoes at the end as well. A programme on Fritz Wunderlich will never be for a general public and I’m sure that no lover of singing would have minded longer shots by some of the interviewees in the programme. Moreover, apart from being nowadays tenor darling, I don’t see what Rolando Villazon is doing here apart from telling some obvious generalities. But as the sleeve notes tell us, the director ‘had no first-hand knowing of Fritz Wunderlich’ and this clearly shows. Fischer-Dieskau for instance comes in telling us some Hegelian or whatever wisdom without the slightest relationship to Wunderlich. In fact some of the most interesting parts are to be found in the bonus.

That’s where a critic finally nicely sums up what the voice of Wunderlich was all about. In the programme itself you won’t find a discussion of it. That’s where out of the blue a surgeon tells us of a delicate operation which could have ended Wunderlich’s career almost before it began. And that’s the place too where another critic tells us that during the very last months of his career Wunderlich’s voice was beginning to show a little bit of wear; maybe a consequence of his vocal generosity (always singing his high C’s with full voice during all rehearsal) or his lifestyle.

Therefore the main interest apart from the revealing bonus interviews lies in the many private shots and the interesting footage made available by the Wunderlich family. Among the singers interviewed, Brigitte Fassbaender has the most interesting things to tell. Christa Ludwig clearly has not much feeling for tenor singing as she hears a lot of Tauber in Wunderlich’s voice and if there is one tenor absent, apart from the charm, in Wunderlich’s sound it is Tauber. And Anneliese Rothenberger who sang with Corelli and Bergonzi at the Met clearly points out that Wunderlich was the greatest “German” tenor of his generation; a saying which becomes the greatest tenor tout court in the English surtitles.

Jan Neckers, Opera Nostalgia