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Dream of An Opera 1 – Rhymoi, Music of China

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Dream of An Opera 1

Audiophile recording pressed on 180 gram vinyl in Germany

2018-11-Dream-of-an-Opera

Tracks:
Side A:
1. Dream of the Red Mansion
2. Mulan
3. Peony Pavilion
4. Madame Butterfly
5. The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl
Side B:
1. The Bramble Hairpin
2. Flowers as the Keepsake
3. The Great Award
4. Buddhist Arhat Coin
5. Drunken Beauty / Miss Su San Goes to Trial

2018 Rhymoi Catalog

At the 2018 California Audio Show, the Los Angeles-based Enmusic, Inc. took up a booth and displayed vinyl albums and compact discs of ancient Chinese music from the label, Rhymoi. The cover artworks of the productions, especially on the large-format vinyl covers, were colorful and unique. Art connoisseurs would especially be enamored by album covers featuring close-ups of character facial make-ups, such as Dream of An Opera 1, the subject of this review. But even to the layman’s eyes, the contrasting colors and their intensity as presented on the large vinyl cover of this LP were nothing if not worthy of framing.

Considering that the ancient Chinese culture emphasized the written word heavily, with paintings created by the very same pen brushes, it becomes apparent the reason the resultant musical aspects of the culture is less melodic in structure and more tonal and poetic, resulting in a sound texturally dense in individual effects and more intimate in scale. Of the many Chinese traditional instrument recordings I’d auditioned and collected, this vinyl production surpassed all in sound quality, performances and sheer listenability.

Chinese operas are not as indoctrinated and enshrined as their Western counterparts. They are passed down by local opera houses and troupes and vary in performances. Still, being based on written historical dramas, contexts of the performances possess a good degree of uniformity throughout the various provinces of the country.

Pressed in Germany on 180 gram vinyl, the Dream of An Opera was actually a series of operatic scores recorded instrumentally into one single vinyl release. Excerpts from ten operas were selected for this recording using traditional solo instruments against a backdrop of western orchestral accompaniment. Each of the ten tracks featured several Chinese instrumental soloists for a total of twenty-one soloists, plus a soprano for a brief utterance in the last track.

A beautifully complied liner notes booklet on high quality paper accompanied the vinyl, which provided a few pages of translated text while the description of each track remained in Chinese. Each inner page of the booklet corresponded to a track, the following is my rough translation of the text for our readership:

Side A:

  1. Dream of the Red Mansion: A Shanghai love story, in which two maternal first cousins in love since childhood were besieged by the young man’s mother on the wedding night, who deceived the bride on the wedding night and married a different girl for her son. The deceived maid couldn’t overcome the grief upon learning the truth and died that very night. The groom rushed to her side in the morning to find out she had died. He threw his wedding attire on the floor and left to become a monk.

The fiddling, two-string erhu represents the male cousin and the plucking guzheng the female cousin. The two converses in initial romance, followed by heart break and the young man’s abandonment of all things of this world.

  1. Hua Mulan: Made famous by the Disney animation Mulan, the music begins by depicting the hidden gender of Mulan with the alternating sounds of the plucking pipa and fiddling cello. The music progressed into percussion in depiction of warfare on horseback.
  1. Peony Pavilion: Over five hundred years old, this operatic excerpt narrates how the young and learned maiden of a southern province governor who, after spending a leisurely afternoon in a peony pavilion in a decrepit backyard with her elderly parents and servant, developed melancholy and then dreamed of the young man of her heart, and became diseased from the longing and was buried beneath the plum tree. The bewildered young man, the object of the maiden’s love, wandered into the same courtyard three years later and found the self-portrait of the maiden and became smitten. The maiden’s spirit was called back to this world to be united with the man of her love and she was resurrected. The music depicts no particular sexes but the storyline.
  1. Madame Butterfly: The Cantonese Opera was based on the Puccini original.
  1. The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl: This story portrays a love story between heaven and earth, in which the Seventh Heavenly Maiden of the deity Jade Emperor, having witnessed the suffering of a cowherd who sold himself to slavery to pay for the proper burial of his father, fell in love with him. She descended onto the world to marry herself to the cowherd, used her magical power to weave so much brocade overnight that the slave owner had to reduce the cowherd’s three-year contract to just a hundred days. But her earthly transgression was discovered just as the couple was returning to their abode and she was ordered to return to the heavenly court or the cowherd would suffer calamities. Thus she departed her earthly husband and returned to the heavens.

The opening cello portrays the overpowering Heavenly Court, then it later is used to narrate the gentle and exquisite love of the Maiden. Midway through, instrument groups rise to recreate the joy shared by all lovers the world over, on earth and in heaven.

Side B:

  1. The Bramble Hairpin: A Szechuan classic, telling the story of a poor, young scholar Huang Shepin, who, after becoming engaged to Yulian, the love of his life using a bramble pin as dowry, was accepted at the Court in the capitol after achieving top grades in the national exam. The prime minister of the Court proceeded to recruit him as his son-in-law. After unsuccessful attempts in threatening and persuasion, the prime minister demoted the young man to a lowly post in a faraway province. Upon learning the news, a devastated Yulian threw herself into the river, only to be rescued by a Fujian official, who also adopted her as his step daughter. Years later in a chance encounter, Huang Shepin ran into Yulian in a temple and after a series of mishaps, one of them produced the hairpin and the two were finally reunited. The music depicts the story and there is no assignment of instruments in depiction of characters.
  1. Flowers as the Keepsake: A comedy of two lovers, their parents, a second bride-to-be and the brother of the groom. Huang Jinxin and his older cousin Li Yue-Ur’s plan to marry was opposed by the Li father. Jinxin’s resultant depression prompted his mother to fetch her favorite candidate, Zhang Chongxie to be the new bride. Jinxin absolutely wouldn’t relent, prompting the busy Huang mother to put a younger nephew, Jiajin to be the stand-in groom just to bring the bride home. Jianjin and Chongxie fell in love at first sight, she followed him home, prompting a misinformed Yue-Ur to assume a betrayal and became heartbroken. The Li mother took action, dispatched Yue-Ur to the Huang household to effectuate the wedding night. Upon learning this, the Zhang father became enraged and raided the wedding suite to interrogate Yue-Ur the bride. The truth was told, misunderstanding was cleared, wedding took place and everyone was happy.
  1. The Great Award: A game of thrones of sorts. On the eve of throne ascension, a prince was betrayed but was rescued by a general’s daughter, who also provided him with military reinforcement to defeat the traitor and his cohorts, and reclaimed the throne. The general’s daughter further persuaded him to withdraw his order of execution for the traitor and forgive him. The traitor renounced his crime, the king received the man’s mother at court and all was well.
  1. Buddhist Arhat Coin: Going against the tradition of matching making by family authorities, two lovers of the same village exchanged vows and Buddhist Arhat Coins as keepsakes. The mother of the girl exercised pressure on the girl to marry as instructed. In the end, the lovers appealed to the court and apply the weight of the law to complete their marriage.
  1. Drunken Beauty / Miss Su San Goes to Trial: Two stories in one, this is a Beijing (Peking) Opera displaying the classic sophistication and embodiment of operatic styles of other provinces into its own. Drunken Beauty depicts the favored imperial concubine Yang Yu-Huan, after being stood up by the Emperor on a date in the imperial courtyard, became embarrassed and then enraged. She proceeded to the west wing of the palace in search of the Emperor to no avail. So, she ordered her two bodyguards to drink with her and returned to her own wing completely drunk.

The second story describes the bizarre fate of the famed prostitute, Su San, who fell in love with Wang Jinlung, the son of an interior minister and exchanged vows with each other. But after Jinlung went broke, the Madame owner of the pleasure house expelled him. Su San provided financial assistance to Jinlung, urged him to leave town for Nanking, and refused to accept new customers ever again. The Madame sold Su San to the Shun family as concubine; before long, Su San was accused by the Shun missus for murder. Su San was transferred to another province for trial. Sitting high on the bench as judge was Jinlung, who had a reversal of fortunes. Su San was vindicated and the two lovers reunited.

 

As rendered by the Audio Note IoI moving coil cartridge, the quietness of the vinyl and dynamic scaling of the production was gratifying, revealing the masterful recording and sound engineering behind the music. With the Kuzma CAR-50 and the Koetsu Jade Platinum taking the scale, tonal definition and realism were taken to the next level. The better your system in tonal separation, the richer and distinct each solo instrument will sound to your ears.

While the booklet’s author would have the listener comprehend the context of the music while listening, I was neither inclined nor interested in following. Especially after I glanced briefly at one of the texts and saw a description of wartime turmoil. I just enjoyed the performances via the Destination Audio 45 tube monoblocks and the Vista Horns while visualizing the landscapes of China to the music. Yes, there were laments of lovers and fantasy of transformation but the richness of the sound pulled me into a world of its own.

First class in packaging, musical production and vinyl manufacture, the Rhymoi vinyl proves itself to be a product of immense value and thus receives my highest recommendation.

 

System:

MIT-Cables Predator 3 headphone amp AC filter power cables (4)
Audio Note AN-Vx 20-strand RCA cables
Audio Note SOGON 42-strand RCA cables
Audio Note AN-SPx 27-strand banana bi-wired speaker cables
Kuzma CAR-50 moving-coil cartridge
Oracle SME 345 tonearm
Kyocera PL-910 turntable
Pass Laboratories XP-25 two-chassis phono preamplification system
Destination Audio 76 tube two-chassis preamplification system
Destination Audio 45 tube monoblock amplifiers
Destination Audio Vista Horns

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One Response to Dream of An Opera 1 – Rhymoi, Music of China


  1. Vivian Lam says:

    I loved his translation of the Chinese operas from the liner notes booklet. I felt excited, captivated, and realized I had a hunger from the void of missing out on Chinese stories all this time due to the language barrier. The short summaries were enough for me to catch a glimpse of how clever, creative, artistic, engaging, imaginative, poetic, cultural, romantic, mythological, mystic, poetic, humorous, unique Chinese storytelling is.

    Because of his review I’m sold on wanting to listen to the vinyl now!

    Great review and well done, Constantine!

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