On Saturday I went to see Rossini’s Barber of Seville at the London Coliseum. The short version of the story is this: Dr. Bartolo keeps his beautiful ward, Rosina, shut indoors because he wants to marry her for her money. Count Almaviva wants to marry her for love. After various tricks and tribulations, the Count and Rosina marry but Bartolo gets the money. But that’s not how ENO played it. In their version, Bartolo was genuinely in love with Rosina and devastated to lose her. He kept her indoors out of jealousy, and put up with a lot of whining and bad behaviour from her. The villain, in fact, became the most sympathetic character.
I found it fascinating to see how different a slant can be put on a story whilst staying within the parameters of the script. The change in emphasis resulted almost entirely from bits of characterisation acting. Rosina’s body language as a minx, rather than a demure maiden, or Bartolo’s apparent gout which was used to excuse any outbursts of bad temper or harshness. Opera’s hardly known for its subtlety, but it was the little things that set the whole atmosphere in this production and also gave the audience an emotional reaction to the characters.
Body language and physical quirks can be used to very powerful effect in creating memorable characters, but it’s an area that’s often ignored in writing. Think about it – what physical actions (or reactions) do you often do? Some people play with their earring when nervous, or swing their foot in a circle when bored. The Count of Monte Cristo twirled his hair around a finger, which is how Mercedes recognised him. That one was a major plot point but they don’t have to be. They can just provide a nice bit of flavouring and a subtle clue to the character’s emotion or personality.