In the opening act of The Marriage of Figaro the music master Don Basilio twits Susanna with the absurdity of her sexual tastes. How odd not to prefer, as anyone else would do, the favours of a signor liberal, prudente e saggio to those of a giovinastro and a paggio (a callow adolescent and a mere page). The page Cherubino, despite his giddy youth and relatively menial role, is of course a lad of good family. The post in the Count's regiment to which he is so unavailingly despatched carries the rank of an officer; and both Mozart's music and Beaumarchais's own commentary on his character make it evident that he is intended to be exceedingly attractive. (He is 'what every mother, in her innermost heart, would wish her own son to be even though he might give her much cause for suffering'.) Don Basilio, moreover, is scarcely an engaging character. But in his sleazy way he captures compellingly enough a prominent feature of the erotic power structure of the Ancien Régime. With only the most modest assistance from nature, any nobleman who was generous as well as worldly could be confident of finding attractive women in plenty who could be relied upon to fall for his charms.
LRB 17 March 1988 | PDF Download