For years, Americans have appreciated Russian classical music, especially ballet and instrumental music. But as VOA?s Zlatica Hoke reports, in the past decade or so, the Russian repertoire has been expanding steadily in major American cities to include little known and rarely performed masterpieces.

Mazeppa is one of ten operas by Peter Tschaikovsky. Based on Alexander Pushkin?s epic poem Poltava, it is a romanticized portrayal of the 17th century Ukrainian rebel leader Ivan Stepanovich Mazeppa. He joined Swedish king Charles XII in a battle against Russian Tsar Peter the Great to obtain independence for his country.

The battle took place when the Ukrainian hero was advanced in age, but according to myth, still a dashing figure. In real life as well as in the opera, Mazeppa?s goddaughter Maria leaves her parents and wants to marry him despite the vast age difference. The historical Mazeppa is aware of the impossibility of the union and returns Maria to her parents. But the operatic hero marries her, creating dramatic tension in which the heroine is torn between her love for him and her parents. As he prepares to execute his wife?s father for betraying him to the Tsar, Mazeppa anticipates her pain in a heart-rending aria Oh, Maria.

American opera connoisseurs may have known this aria from recordings - this one by dashing silver-haired baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky. But few have had a chance to see the fully produced opera in a theater. Last week the visiting Kirov Opera from the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg gave two performances of Mazeppa to enchanted audiences. According to the critics, the performance was more successful than the better-known and perhaps the most popular Tschaikovsky opera Eugene Onegin, also performed last week.

Both operas were conducted by Valery Gergiev, the flamboyant director of the Kirov Company who is a frequent guest in the United States. Mr. Gergiev?s signature style is a combination of all-time favorites with rarely performed and innovative works. Last year he brought to Washington Mussorgsky?s opera Khovanshchina, which may be a standard work in Russia but is rarely heard in the United States.

This past summer the Kirov Opera led by Valery Gergiev performed in New York City. Along with well known works, the company introduced such rarely performed operas as Rimsky-Korsakov?s The Legend of Invisible City of Kitezh and Bethrothal in a Monastery.

While the conductor, known as the ?Fiery angel? of Kirov, introduces Russian operas to international audiences, he also brings to Russia classical works that are rarely performed there. In 2001 he conducted the first-ever performance in Russia of Verdi?s masterpiece Macbeth and earlier this year the four operas of The Ring of Niebelungs cycle, the first Russian production of Wagner?s masterpiece since before the First World War.

Valery Gergiev began his career as assistant conductor to Yuri Temirkanov, another famous Kirov conductor, who is currently director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Last month, Mr. Temirkanov and his orchestra joined the renowned Choral Arts Society of Washington in the performance of Prokofiev?s Alexander Nevsky cantata.

Norman Scribner, director of the Choral Arts Society, one of America?s foremost choral-symphonic groups, says he was interested in highlighting Russian music to coincide with the celebration of St. Petersburg?s three-hundreth birthday. ?Basically it stems from the fact that this year is the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg, the establishment of the great Russian city,? he says.

Under Norman Scribner?s direction the Choral Arts Society made a historic visit to Russia to perform Prokofiev?s cantata in Moscow?s Red Square. The open-air concert was attended by 100,000 people. ?We knew that the Baltimore Symphony would probably want to celebrate that occasion especially with this Russian maestro Yuri Temirkanov,? he says. ?And we?ve developed a little bit of a relationship with the Baltimore Symphony and we?ve sung with them sometimes before, both parts of the chorus and then the entire chorus. They?ve come over and visited with us before so we just thought it would be a grand idea to do some Russian music.?

Norman Scribner?s organization has been more adventurous than most other American music groups in exploring the Russian classical opus. The Choral Arts Society of Washington has been the first to present Rachmaninov?s Bells in Washington D.C. Mr. Scribner says 10 years ago one could not be sure to attract an American audience with these works. Today, he says, there is no problem selling tickets.