Vladimir Ekzarkhov, a son of Russian emigre parents and a longtime Washington resident, gave a too-rare vocal recital last night in the University of Maryland's Tawes Recital Hall. He is a true Russian bass, with a deep, dark tone and rich vibrato found almost exclusively in Slavic populations, and he sang a program of songs and operatic arias by Glinka, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff -- repertoire with a wide range of colors and great power that is not heard often enough in this country.
Ekzarkhov has a good voice (in its distinctive category, which is not to all tastes), but what set last night's recital apart and delighted the near-capacity audience was his impressive theatrical talent. When the material allowed, his performance again and again became a small opera with only one singer and no scenery, costumes or makeup.
He was intensely comic in Mussorgsky's "Song of the Flea," which was the best thing on the program until he came to his single encore: the showpiece "La Calunnia" from "The Barber of Seville." He faced death steadfastly but not without anguish in Susanin's aria from Glinka's "A Life for the Tsar"; he was oily and seductive in Konchak's aria from "Prince Igor," and an intensely worried father in King Rene's aria from Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta." He was young, and rashly impassioned in Aleko's aria from Rachmaninoff's "Aleko."
His face is intensely expressive, his gestures communicative, his knowledge and control of the material exemplary. He seemed slightly more effective with comic material, but capable of making a strong impact in a serious mode.
The art songs were, on the whole, less impressive than the arias -- generally well done but lacking the special spark he brought to operatic material. There were some exceptions among the songs -- Glinka's "Midnight Review," for example, a spooky little masterpiece in which the dead armies of Napoleon rise from their graves at midnight and march in review before the dead emperor. But those exceptions (notably several songs by Rachmaninoff, who wrote for voice as eloquently as for piano) were always music that had a strong dramatic element and depended on acting as well as vocal ability.
Pianist Ruth Ann McDonald played eloquently, often passionately and occasionally too loud, covering the singer's voice in some passages. But it was, on the whole, a well-balanced and intriguing recital. I hope to hear more of Vladimir Ekzarkhov.