What is the role of an accompaniment, particularly in terms of an opera? Some could argue it is to provide a sense of pitch for the vocalists, although how anyone gets their pitch in Berg's Wozzeck is beyond me - and certainly at the professional level the vocalists should be able to know their pitch without the assistance of the accompaniment. It could be to provide a subplot to the text being sung. Certainly in Brittan's Rape of Lucretia, or Peter Grimes, the music provides a huge amount of subtext to the words, but what of atmosphere? Should the accompaniment also provide atmosphere to the scene, a setting or mood to extend the lyrics into a scene?
For me I think all of the above reasons have their moments in an opera. While I agree a professional opera singer should be of a quality to not need the crutch of always having their pitch, there is something to be said for making the music accessible, to both the audience and the vocalist. If the music is too difficult then it will never be performed by anyone outside the extremely professional - and an opera of extreme music means very few productions. By providing an accompaniment that flows with the vocal line, which would also provide a sense of pitch, also makes for music that more than just the musically elite can enjoy. Not all operas should require a PhD in music with an in-depth knowledge of the piece being performed to be enjoyed. One of the reasons Puccini's Turendot is still performed so often is the beautiful music (certainly not the story line). This is music that even the casual opera lover can really enjoy.
Providing subplot to the text is one of the major features in opera (IMHO) as opposed to straight theatre or even musical theatre. In the straight theatre the actors have numerous lines to be able to create nuances to their character, so not every word the actor speaks needs to be honest - as the subtext is in as much as what is not said as what is. Musical theatre needs the lyrics to be brutally honest so the point is clear; the music most often corresponds directly to the words and sentiment to drive home the point. In Opera, however, the music is the subtext, the thoughts not said, the feelings unspoken and the power behind the art form.
However, having said all this there are times when the accompaniment can get in the way, when the desire to extend the sentiment through music can actually detract from the lyrics, from the vocals, from the performance. This is when setting the mood, and only the mood is important. There are times when the vocalist is alone and the power of their solo performance is paramount. If the accompaniment becomes too noticeable, then it is no longer just one performer on stage, but two.
I am working on a portion of "It Must Be Fate" - an aria (if you will) when Jarad sings his frustration with the Fates. He is railing against the hand he's be dealt. The accompaniment was initially a flowing repetitive line on solo piano (although I may add some sustained strings to smooth out the rather fast 5/8 tempo). There are few changes in the piano line, with a repetitive low C pulsing at the start of nearly every bar. Does it need to change; should it drop to a B-natural (in a piece based in C Phrygian) to add tension? Surely his railing against the fates is a tense moment?
It is a difficult decision. When the accompaniment shifts, even slightly, it becomes noticeable and the focus, even for a moment, moves from Jarad (the vocalist) to the accompaniment. However, if there is no change, then the accompaniment fades into the background, beating on, continuing to pulse, weaving in a trance like state (remember: this is an opera about the fates - who are the weavers of our lives). The power of the piece lies with the vocalist - and, if done right, can really be a chance to shine, to bring the audience into his heart, his soul, through the anxiety of his performance. Maybe I am asking a lot from the performer, but any more than Berg asks of his? What I am asking is for a performance, that is more than just beautifully sung - but also beautifully acted - a complete performance.
We'll see how successful I am come the 4th of June.