This essay was written as a character development exercise for a 2017 production of The Marriage of Figaro at UT Dallas. As such, it blends textual analysis with notes on interpretation that are specific to the production.
Beaumarchais’s original text included detailed character notes: “Chérubin” was to be played as “a charming young scamp, diffident only in the presence of the Countess.” He was a trouser role right from the beginning, as the subtlety of the role required an adult who could look back on puberty with amusement. (1) This disconnect between the actor and the role is difficult for me. I must be aware, but Cherubino must be oblivious. While I as an actor have to keep in mind his role in the larger narrative, the way he appears to the audience, and the effect of his actions on others, these thoughts never enter Cherubino’s mind. He is incredibly shallow. He thinks about girls, and touching and being touched by girls, and doing things that will make girls want to touch him, and not having his fun interrupted by other men. He is never going to stop and think carefully about himself the way I have – I know more about him than he does, and I have to let that analysis go to the back of my mind in performance, so I can play him with the pure empty-headed desire that makes up 95% of his brain.
One of the traits that I am always reminded to play up in rehearsal is Cherubino’s incessant handsiness. He is pushy and catlike, always invading people’s personal space. This trait is an unusually hard one for me to portray, because although I love physical contact, I also hate to make people uncomfortable, and Cherubino has no such reservations. I have to persuade my brain to drop its instinctive desire to give people space, over and over again.
Cherubino is neither self-aware nor particularly thoughtful of other people. Not only is he likely to invade space, but to invade it at exactly the most inconvenient moment for everyone involved. When the Count throws me out of the chair and I run to Susanna, I simply put her between myself and the Count and look scared. It’s not a terrible reaction, but it’s too aware of the situation: Cherubino would take the opportunity, even in his fright, to hug Susanna and hold onto her – regardless of the impression that would give observers, when Susanna has just barely managed to convince them that his presence in the room was innocent. I have to comb through the script and dissect these situations, taking what is in my head as an actor and separating the spatial sensitivity, the situational awareness, the overanalysis of my own movements from Cherubino’s uncluttered desire for touch.
In fact, as I consider his mindscape, I have run up against a fundamental principle that changes how I approach him: he literally does not imagine that anyone would actually reject him. It is an astounding bit of naiveté, born half of entitlement and half of inexperience. I have to approach each physical interaction not just with the knowledge that it is “allowed”, but with utter confidence that it will be accepted.
I find it easiest to portray him in the two arias where I am basically a prop – Figaro’s “Non piu andrai” and Susanna’s “Venite, inginocchiatevi”. Cherubino has a certain adaptability to him. He is able to change tactics the moment the idea enters his head to do so. (He just has to actually get the idea. He is such an airhead.) When pretty women are amused by using him as a prop, he has no problem with it, because having fun and being touched are high on his list of priorities: he has no particular pride or honor that forbids his being compliant and playful. Reacting to Figaro is different, but along the same lines. Cherubino is well aware that he doesn’t stand a chance either physically or socially against Figaro: his tactic, therefore, is to be pitiful and puppy-eyed and appeal to Susanna for protection.
In accosting the Countess in Act IV, Cherubino unsuccessfully cycles through several tactics: he is teasing, pleading, demanding, accusing by turns. It should be a wake-up moment for the audience. All through the show, Cherubino has been comic and adorable, precocious but never threatening – always, the threat is what other people might assume from his presence, never what he might actually do. In Act IV, the audience must see the logical progression of a sexually-entitled boy to an aggressive threat, and realize that what they laughed at before was always leading up to an encounter like this. The Marriage of Figaro is not a moralizing show, but it handles the themes of consent and sexual harassment from a variety of angles, and Cherubino’s character does not support the narrative as well if this final encounter is reduced to a merry, innocent flirtation that simply happens at an inconvenient time.
Despite all this, Cherubino is not entirely a horrible person. I have been harsh on him in this essay – largely because I love him and I wish someone would call him out and reset his trajectory, and give him a chance to become a decent person. His self-centered sexuality goes hand in hand with heartfelt love; his precociousness has the makings of charm and confidence; he lacks the preoccupation with honor and pride that the men around him exhibit. He can be sacrificial in his passion, ready to risk death rather than embarrass the Countess. He is sincere in all that he does – even if his actions are ridiculous, over-the-top, or dangerous, his whole heart is in them. If he was to become fascinated by better role models, question his assumptions, and allow his natural generosity and sweetness to lead instead of his learned entitlement, he could have become a good person.
Cherubino has a comfortable and familiar relationship with Susanna: he looks for her when he is upset, wants her support in appealing to the Countess, and follows her plans almost without question. She deals with his playful advances with patience and good humor, and seems to consider him a sweet kid, if overly hormonal. They are fond of each other, on a similar social level, and probably run into each other at the office often in their day-to-day work. In our production, almost every interaction I have with Susanna is either seeking her help or helping her with a scheme. First, I come to her to ask her to talk to the Countess for me; next, she lets me confide in her about my irrepressible passion; then she protects me from the Count, first by hiding me and then by defending me; then I look for her protection again when Figaro bullies me; then she gains me my audience with the Countess, and I help them by being a prop for their plan; then we have to work together to protect the Countess’s honor; and then comes the outlier in the data, the one scene that breaks the pattern.
In the finale, I am of course operating under the assumption that the woman I interact with is Susanna, not the Countess. The open, playful familiarity that Cherubino displays would horrify him if he knew her true identity. The Countess is an untouchable idol, but Susanna is on my level, in my league: I have made dozens of passes at her before, always facetious, but now, with her waiting for a lover in the garden, I think I have an actual chance. I think I know the situation (in an effort to be smooth and authoritative like the Count, to turn things to my advantage like Figaro), and assume that all her protestations are a feminine prelude to a “yes”. The situation arises from sheer inexperience, bad example, and the souring of familiarity into disrespect.
In marked contrast to Cherubino’s relationship with Susanna, the Countess is everything glamorous and unfamiliar and exciting. She has always been a sort of fascinating aunt, just close enough to be enthralling, never close enough to be quite ordinary. In keeping with Beaumarchais’s note, she is the only person capable of actually rendering Cherubino speechless: even when in danger, Cherubino seems incapable of shutting up, but will try to explain or plead or flirt his way out of it. The Countess is a movie-star celebrity in his eyes, the pinnacle of womanhood. As such, my onstage interactions with her are limited: I join in her dress-up game, with lovestruck complaisance, and almost die of embarrassment when instructed to dance with her; I do my best to protect her honor in her absence; and I unwittingly accost her in the garden. The moment of the reveal in the finale should hit especially hard for Cherubino – not only is he surprised like everyone else, but he just realized he made a fool of himself in front of the woman of his dreams.
Poor Barbarina is a love of convenience: she is there, she is interested, she is willing. She gets very little stage time, and even less time to interact with Cherubino. In her few appearances, though, a pattern emerges: she protects Cherubino from the Count, she recruits him to help with her project, and she is playful and flirtatious with him. In short, she is Susanna, but without a fiancé and willing to sleep with people. It’s easy to divine Cherubino’s interest.
Figaro is an older brother or uncle of sorts, simultaneously adored and frustrating. I turn to him for help, I mimic his improvisatory confidence, I watch him spin every situation into the perfect outcome; and he picks on me, laughs at me, and keeps me away from Susanna. (As Brad [Bradley Ritschel, playing Figaro] leads the chorus on at the end of Act I and pauses to reassure Susanna that he has the situation under control, he always adds, “Except for you, Cherubino, you’re screwed.”) At the same time, his focus is never on attacking me specifically, but the Count. Even Figaro will stick up for me, if it works with his plans. He may humiliate me in “Non piu andrai,” but later he will take the fall for me jumping out the Countess’s window, and in the finale, he will get hit instead of me when the Count discovers me with “Susanna”. (In a few productions, this is staged as a conscious decision on Figaro’s part: he moves to get Cherubino out of the way, and thus gets hit himself, rather than the slapstick miss we have staged.) Figaro is on his own side and he’s not above picking on a kid, but Cherubino still looks up to him, frustrating as he can be.
Cherubino’s relationship with the Count is his relationship with Figaro, simplified and heightened. The Count is refined, elegant, influential, married to the woman Cherubino loves most, and conducting desultory side affairs even as he pursues another woman Cherubino likes: he is everything Cherubino wants to be. I have been watching his interactions with Susanna to mimic them and bring out that similarity, to show how Cherubino learns from him. (Thus goes the life cycle of the opera hero: first you are the brazen but charming young mezzo, liked but not beloved; then the romantic and dashing tenor, rescuing a swooning soprano; then the bass, turned cynical and powerful and inspiring a new generation’s pursuit of women.)
Despite this, he is also the primary antagonist, and Cherubino is 100% scared of him. Having basically been Cherubino when young, the Count can see through all of his tactics. He cannot be flirted with or appealed to; he can be threatened, but Cherubino has no means to threaten him. (Except, interestingly, in the one area Cherubino still has hardly dreamed of: as a potential lover to the Countess.) In every interaction with the Count, therefore, I am hiding from him, pleading with him, avoiding him. First I am discovered in the chair and try to explain myself out of the situation; then I am banished, and cannot implore my way out; then I am almost discovered with the Countess and have to disappear; then I am discovered with “Susanna” and have to escape again. The only positive interaction I have with the Count is our mute reconciliation during the finale – a recognition from a former romantic tenor hero to a future one.
Cherubino has limited interaction with the rest of the characters in the opera. He includes Marcellina in his list of women for Susanna to sing his love song to, but that is the only time he textually “interacts” with her. Antonio seems to have a bit of a grudge against Cherubino (understandably, as the father of his girlfriend), but in our production, their direct interactions have been cut. Bartolo, Basilio and Don Curzio never interact with Cherubino at all. (I interact with all these characters in passing at the wedding, but it is in disguise and therefore not based on any kind of relationship.)
Cherubino changes clothes many times over the course of the show. He starts out in a basic, semi-casual outfit – depending on the time period, anything from a frilly late-1700s suit to a beanie and skinny jeans. In designing our production, Ricky [assistant director] asked me to wear a tie but no clip to hold it down, a dress shirt but with sleeves scrunched up, and a vest but unbuttoned. This makes me fit in with the general office look, but designates me as less “buttoned-up” and formal than Figaro, who would in turn be less formal than the Count (who, naturally, would be the most formal and elegant of all). Not only do these costume choices hint at the hierarchy of the characters, they also establish Cherubino as rumpled, careless – continuously in a state of dishevelment that hints at his ever-present sexuality.
In most productions, Cherubino also appears in a military uniform of some type, which he wears at the beginning of Act II to sing for the Countess. It serves as a visual reminder of the events of the last act, and also gives him an excuse to be even more uncomfortable around the Countess: not only is he performing for his idol on short notice, he must do so in unfamiliar, restrictive clothing that reminds him of his impending banishment. In our production, the Act II costume has not been worked out yet, but it is likely to be based mostly on my Act I costume. During “Non piu andrai”, Figaro discards my vest and tie and adds new elements to the costume – a lanyard, a different tie – but that may be all the changes we make. This is enough, however, to imply a loss of the comfortable dishevelment of Act I.
Then there is the first of the two crossdressing scenes. The dress-up game in “Venite, inginocchiatevi,” aborted as it is by the Count’s arrival, creates a more comic and less effective illusion of femininity. The makeup and high heels are choices suggestive of a drag queen, ultra-feminine elements applied to masculinity not to truly try to disguise it, but to act as comic counterpoint. The dress Ruchi [u/s Cherubino and costume supervisor] provided was a reject from Little Women: a long sundress with a prim collar, the kind of outfit that would make even a female tomboy cringe. Pulling it down over my head brought memories flooding back of day-long church meetings where the boys were allowed to climb trees in their pants and dress shirts and I had to stay on the ground, frustrated by the potential indecency of wearing a skirt. But Cherubino does not have the self-awareness necessary to make that connection, between the physical limitations of a skirt and heels and the experience of the women who wear them every day. His assessment is more immediate – first, that playing dress-up with Susanna and the Countess is not nearly as sexy and exciting as he thought it was going to be; second, that he looks ridiculous and not at all attractive; third, that Susanna and the Countess find this amusing and therefore he still has the opportunity to flirt with them by changing tactics.
After the Count’s interruption, Cherubino reappears more disheveled than before – he has lost the dress and also the inconvenient heels, and the makeup is smeared. The Countess will later refer to his “open collar, shoulders naked”: he has gotten himself out of his disguise as quickly as possible and, while probably never in quite the state that she fears, is definitely less than presentable. He then vanishes for the rest of Act II and into Act III, until Barbarina takes him offstage for a second dress-up game. This one is, in my opinion, probably closer to Cherubino’s original fantasy of pretty girls making him pretty too, especially given that Barbarina’s recitative implies that there will be other girls from the office joining in the fun. Whatever happens offstage produces a slightly more believable result than “Venite, inginocchiatevi,” enough so that Cherubino can mingle with the wedding guests with varying success. (So far, the Countess and Figaro have recognized me but not given me away; Marcellina has done a double-take and looked down her nose at me; Antonio has squinted drunkenly at me; Barbarina has played wingman and encouraged men to flirt with me; and Basilio and Don Curzio have actually flirted.) This costume is entirely up to me, since the change occurs offstage. While I want to wait and see what the other women are wearing, my current idea is to wear an office-suitable pink dress with a light shrug over it. The pink dress broadcasts femininity, and the shrug will “disguise” my lack of bust. In keeping with this being the more sensible of the two disguises, however, I plan to wear flats with it – heels will not only make my legs look more feminine in a skirt, but also highlight my unfeminine height.
In most productions, Cherubino is discovered in this outfit and his identity is revealed, allowing him to return to one of his previous male costumes for Act IV. Due to our cuts and skips, Cherubino leaves Act III still undetected but appears male again to pursue the Countess in Act IV. Perhaps he and Barbarina decided that under cover of darkness, nobody would notice him; perhaps he just got sick of being in a skirt and changed back on his own, with his characteristic lack of common sense. Whatever the reasoning, Act IV has Cherubino back in his shirt and pants. (The vest and tie are gone for good – wherever Figaro put them during “Andrai”, Cherubino has no excuse to go and get them at any time between being dressed up for his new job, dressed up by the Countess and Susanna, escaping out the window, and going to Barbarina’s house.)
In the 1993 Paris version sent out to our cast, Pamela Helen Stephen’s Cherubino is a classic portrayal: sparkling, mischievous, convincingly male, convincingly in love with everyone (without being oversexualized), expressive and passionate and wonderfully awkward. I have now seen every professional-level “Non so piu” (and most of the “Voi che sapete”-s) available on YouTube, and these are the traits I picked up again and again from the Cherubinos I liked.
There is a subset of Cherubinos whose directors decided to emphasize their sexuality, and I very much dislike that direction. I feel that Cherubino’s primary drive is actually romance, with sexuality coming a very close second. He is less interested in humping furniture than he is in playing all the games that accompany a seduction, the teasing and unspoken invitations and suggestive contact. Ruchi has said of her Cherubino, “This kid could look at a bush and get horny,” but I think mine would look at a bush and find some connection to or metaphor for his love, and it would be that mental leap to romance that thrilled him. He just wants to play games and be dramatic and get spoiled, and sex and romance together are a new exciting way to have all three. Stephen’s Cherubino is delighted when Susanna teases him during “Non so piu,” letting him come closer and closer before pulling her legs away from his grasp. The scene plays less creepy or vulgar, more indulgent and merry – more in harmony with the overall tone of the show and of the characters’ relationship.
Despite the utter bizarreness of the 2006 Salzburg production, there were a few things I liked about Christine Schafer’s Cherubino. (I still have no idea why he had some sort of split-personality guardian angel played by a boy, or even what mission this other angel seemed so desperate to accomplish, or indeed what was going on with most of the staging choices in this show.) But this Cherubino was perfectly androgynous, balancing delicately between male and female and not fully convincing as either, like a Shakespearean spirit. There was also an exquisite vulnerability that I had not yet seen in other productions, which made Cherubino feel actually like he might be as young as twelve or fourteen, regardless of the actress’s apparent age. Overall, Schafer’s Cherubino is particular to the peculiar production, but I took from her permission to be small despite my height, and reassurance that wherever I fell on the scale of male to female could be made to work.
Some Cherubinos have a darker voice that sounds more masculine, others are built or costumed in such a way as to pass perfectly as male, but Angelika Kirkschlager (Paris, 2004) is one of the most convincing in her movements. She can even get away with having a long ponytail down her back, without it hindering the illusion in the slightest. Nothing in her gestures, her posture, her way of walking or her interactions betrays her femininity; she is awkward, uncooperative, melodramatic, flirtatious, even effeminate in her immaturity, but never actually feminine. The illusion is perfect in her acting alone. She is not just convincingly male, but convincingly teenage, convincingly excited, convincingly frightened, convincingly Cherubino.
It took me a long time to settle into masculinity for this production. In 2014 I first encountered this character and had a fascinating time uncovering him within me. As Tina Packer told our Shakespeare workshop earlier this term, acting isn’t putting things on, but taking them off until the truth of the character shows through you. This year, with more experience in life and art and a wider repertoire of both acting and opera, it took me a while to sort through what felt natural to me and what would feel natural to Cherubino. (In one of the early blocking rehearsals, when I ran to hug Susanna, my foot popped up as if I was in The Princess Diaries – completely unconscious, and completely wrong.) Recapturing Cherubino took a return to basics, reconsidering how to stand and walk and gesture, and a return to studying the boys around me. This, naturally, triggered a period of overanalysis and awkwardness as I questioned every move I made and wondered if I even knew how to act. But once I settled in again, things began to make sense – the research paid off, and what I had studied started to feel natural. Watching excellent actresses like Kirkschlager helped give me an idea of how much I needed to work at the transformation, and how much I could let it take its own course.
Past and Future
Cherubino does not appear in The Barber of Seville. His history starts sometime between the end of that story and the beginning of Figaro: he is listed in the original play and in the opera as the Countess’s godson and the Count’s page. His origin is something of a mystery, given the play’s time period. Up through the Renaissance, a page in a rich household might be from a family of similar status and act as a goodwill gesture between the two houses as he learned how such a household was run; later on, he might be a child from a low-income family finding a job with a richer one. Cherubino’s background thus depends on what sort of friends the young Rosina would have been likely to have. Sequestered by Bartolo, she would have had few friends to begin with. Following her marriage to the Count, she could have made friends with other ladies of station, but as her best friend in Figaro is her maid Susanna, it may be more likely that Cherubino’s mother was another household servant who was friends with Rosina.
These traits map neatly onto our modernized production. Cherubino may still be the Countess’s godson, or just a young friend (or son of a friend), but he probably grew up comparatively well-off and was often in the company of the Almavivas. He clearly got the internship through the Countess and not through any particular skill or usefulness of his own. (Given his workplace escapades, it would be a terrible idea to list “internship at Almaviva Accounting” on any future resume.) It’s very likely that Cherubino has gone to the Countess before to convince the Count not to fire him for general incompetency. A messy personality like Cherubino’s would be a poor fit for a data-based environment, and Cherubino’s first impulse when in trouble is to get the Countess to fix it, so this must have worked for him in the past.
While Cherubino certainly knew the Almavivas and possibly also Figaro from childhood, Barbarina seems to be a more recent acquaintance. They probably met at the office and found each other more interesting than their work. I’m not sure if Barbarina is another intern, an assistant like Susanna, or working with her father in landscaping – but, to be fair, Cherubino probably wouldn’t bother to find out. She’s there, she’s a girl, she likes him, that’s enough. That, in fact, pretty much covers his goals and dreams. He lives in the moment.
(Technically, his goals and dreams include more women: specifically Susanna, sometimes the Countess if he’s really dreaming. But in general, “ladies who like him and think he’s pretty and will sleep with him” covers it.)
Cherubino has undoubtedly been spoiled growing up. His entitlement displays an interesting blend of different factors. First, as a young man growing up in a male-dominated society, he has internalized certain ideas about women: he refuses to take “no” for an answer, does not respect the women in his life the way he does the men, and expects the women to be able to fix everything via sex and charm. (Although, to be fair, using sex and charm to get his way is also Cherubino’s MO – it just won’t work against the Count and Figaro.)
Secondly, Cherubino is an intern who apparently has no interest in his work, is dating someone else in the office (and probably pursuing/harassing/cheating-on-Barbarina-with other girls around the place), and uses his connections with the Countess to keep himself from getting fired. He has no accountability and takes no responsibility for his actions.
Thirdly, Cherubino has grown up around the Count and Figaro. He has undoubtedly heard the story of the Count’s romantic escapades in pursuit of Rosina, solving problems with stubbornness and sometimes with the threat of violence. Figaro, omnipresent and pragmatic, would have been an excitingly Han Solo-ish figure, always able to fix the situation to his advantage. Figaro’s own mistrust of women is evident in his Act IV aria, where he despairs of Susanna’s fidelity – despite having worked with her all day to come up with some plot to foil the Count’s advances. And the Count, of course, serves as the primary antagonist with his sexual harassment, bribery, and impulsive threats. These are Cherubino’s primary role models, and so he picks up on their traits: impulsive, passionate, and entitled like the Count, impudent, reckless and dismissive like Figaro.
There are productions which turn the double wedding of Figaro/Susanna and Bartolo/Marcellina into a triple wedding, allowing Cherubino and Barbarina to join in. In our production, at least, I doubt they got married at all. The two seem unlikely to actually commit to each other, especially in a modern setting where they would not need to be married for their relationship to be legally consummated. While Barbarina may be his go-to girl, Cherubino probably has other loves and flirtations around the office, and Barbarina (being at most still in her teens) has quite a lot of future ahead of her. Neither one of them seems to have any particular scruples about extramarital activity, given Barbarina’s affair with the Count and Cherubino’s entire character. Barbarina’s offer saves the situation, but may not lead to anything.
One of several things could happen. Cherubino and Barbarina might laugh it off as a clever solution to the dangerous moment; they might go at it wholeheartedly, get married, live together, get tired of each other, and split; or Barbarina might truly love and want to marry Cherubino, and end up in the same situation as the Countess as Cherubino pursues other women. Whatever the outcome, Barbarina is either on the sidelines or out of the picture by the time of the third play.
In the third play, Cherubino continues to cause problems with his passion and lack of common sense – even in death. He has a one-night stand with the Countess, who immediately regrets it and declares she can never see him again. In characteristically melodramatic fashion, Cherubino goes and gets himself killed on the battlefield, leaving her a letter declaring his love and remorse and looking back on the details of their night together. The Countess doesn’t have the heart to get rid of the incriminating letter, so she hides it in a secret compartment of a box. It is later discovered and used to prove that her son Leon is actually not the Count’s son, but Cherubino’s (which at first illegitimizes and disinherits him but then allows him to marry the Count’s daughter, whom he loves).
In the universe of our production, where the army has been replaced by the call center, Cherubino’s death was probably a more direct suicide. Other boys have killed themselves from rejection. I doubt it was a destructive rampage that made the news: the play version was a sort-of-honorable death, an attempt at a grand romantic gesture. In the modern day, it might be public or semi-private, but there would be no collateral damage. It would still be accompanied by the most poetic and incriminating of notes: even in the modern day, probably still on paper, as being more romantic than a video or other message.
There is something sad but almost funny in the predictability of Cherubino’s future. He quite literally never grows up. He is the one-aged child, like the tragedy that inspired Peter Pan: never experiencing adulthood, never becoming really self-aware. He was only ever the overdramatic teenager, who wanted so much and never learned anything.
And yet – when I read his fate, my first reaction was “of course he did.” How could we expect anything else? He died as he lived, ridiculous about romance, unable to hear “no”, spoiled and silly but still doing his utter best to be charming. Even in death, he was looking for the most romantically tragic gesture, the best display of his passion. It’s sad and preventable and frustrating, but so utterly Cherubino.
- Wood, John (trans and intro) (1964). The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics. OCLC58897211.
March 15th, 2017