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This production has an additional character, listed as ‘Cherub.’ The Cherub is a young man (the performer’s name is Uli Kirsch) who is dressed in the same clothes – navy shorts suit, gray knee socks – as Cherubino, although he has wings. He leaps in via the window during the overture. On stage at this point are three couples, all frozen still: Bartolo and Marcellina, Figaro and Susanna, and the Count and Countess. Bartolo is reading something; Marcellina’s attention is elsewhere; Figaro is mentally measuring something and Susanna is thinking; the Count is nervously mopping his face and the Countess is gazing out into space towards the audience looking as if she is going to cry. The Cherub places an apple near each of the pairs, and moves his hands over them. Everyone seems to wake up. Marcellina moves toward Figaro, Susanna wanders up the stairs toward the Count, who turns to look at his wife, who walks, as if in a trance, up the stairs. Everyone’s unadmitted and even unwanted desires, in other words, have been unlocked.
This appears to be the function of the Cherub in this production. He releases the aspects of the characters’ selves that make them uncomfortable. He literally rides around on the Count’s shoulder at one point, and in general is often to be found pushing or pulling or otherwise influencing the characters. Whenever someone does something that might cause some confusion or trouble (Figaro’s plan in Act II, or Susanna’s “deh, vieni”) the Cherub sometimes stands with his back to the person in question, so that that character is for that moment “wearing” his wings. No one can quite see him – like the touch of the feathers he blows or lets fall, he’s just barely perceptible. (Susanna writes the note in “canzonetta sull’aria” with a feather from one of his wings, and during “deh, vieni” picks up and toys with a Cherub feather. The feathers seem to communicate how the emotions the Cherub awakens seem to the characters: sometimes just barely perceptible, sometimes blowing in gusts; these are objects that convey a physical sense of being touched by something that might not actually be there at all, and which if it is is certainly not something you want to rely on. And if you try to grab it you might end up with nothing but fuzz. Feathers might actually be a good metaphor for subtext, when you think about it.)
The Cherub appears to have quite an influence on Cherubino in particular. When Cherubino enters in Act II the Cherub draws him into the room, and the Countess stares at him as if he’s the most amazing little thing she’s ever seen in her life. He stares back. He tries to flee to avoid singing his song, but the Cherub stops him. Cherubino sings “voi che sapete” and – well, ladies and gentlemen, this is one magic pageboy. Both the Countess and Susanna rest against the wall, looking dazed. The Countess in particular has an expression on her face that suggests she is, for the moment, in a very, very happy place. The effect is more than ably assisted by the truly lovely sound of Christine Schäfer’s voice – here and elsewhere in this performance she is sheer happiness to listen to. Later, during “venite, inginocchiatevi” Susanna strips Cherubino down to his shorts and t-shirt, but does not dress him up in girl’s clothes. Rather, all three of them take turns stretching out on the count’s fur-lined coat on the floor and everyone feels up Cherubino. And the two women take turns lying down so that Cherubino can touch them. (Cherubino, once he’s gazing down, rapt, at the Countess, clearly knows where he wants to put his hands, but doesn’t quite dare; he settles for a snog instead.) The point is, Cherubino is a particular focus of the Cherub’s attention and seems to communicate it to others as well. In addition to this he is often completely overwhelmed by what is going on around him. At the very end of the opera, when all the couples have been appropriately paired up again, and the Cherub despite all his efforts cannot wrest them apart, which causes him to leave, Cherubino – after a parting caress from the Cherub – collapses onto the floor. Poor little guy.
So, the Cherub is a sort of external expression of everyone’s mixed desires. He’s a figure of disorder and temptation and desire (all those apples!). It’s worth noting that the one person he has no effect on at all is Basilio, who – as his aria in Act IV expresses; this is one of the few productions I’ve ever seen where this aria really seems to do something – has long ago settled on being duplicitous, and as such, is so thoroughly fake that he apparently has none of the sort of self-deception or ambivalence which allows the Cherub an in with the other characters. Whereas Cherubino is the opposite: he doesn’t know who he is or what he wants or what he’s doing half the time – he’s the perfect access point.
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