Whoever would have thought that Arthur Honegger, the rigidly Protestant composer famous for his oratorios such as Le Roi David and Jeanne d’ Arc, the First Symphony and his 1934 cello concerto, would compose one of the most controversial and lyrical pieces of the twentieth century? He surprised the world with an authentic operetta in pure vaudeville style, and once more showed his mastery and versatile creativity. Above all the piece was a sign of his penchant for differing styles and genres; so, in Honegger’s mind, a good operetta was better than a bad opera. The Roi Pausole was a resounding success.
After the successful Roi Pausole, the premiere of which was followed by 500 more performances, Honegger composed two further operettas, one of which was created in collaboration with his friend Jacques Ibert. It must have been with great pleasure, commitment and enthusiasm that he and the famous librettist Albert Willemits worked together to bring to life the adventures of the ambiguous king Pausole who ruled over the licentious kingdom of Tryphème with his 365 wives – one for each night of the year. Although the composition is in typical vaudeville style (music alternated with spoken text), both musically and literarily it transcends the genre in every aspect. The score is full of surprises: a brilliant small orchestral arrangement, a hint of vaudeville, a pinch of Dixieland, a genuine Spanish paso doble, ‘schmaltzy’-like chansons, classic bel canto and the odd jolly reference to his own work. But above all it conveys Honegger’s connection to the Groupe des Six!
The libretto by Albert Willemetz is based on an erotic novel published in 1901 by the then famous Belgian writer Pierre Louÿs, who was a friend of Debussy and lyricist of his Chanson de Bilitis. Willemetz wrote beautiful albeit slightly elaborate French dialogues in verse: scintillating, daring, ambiguous, ever alluding but never explicit. As this makes the libretto difficult to translate, an immense task awaits the director who, despite the language barrier, wants to involve an audience in this delicious comedy of morals.