It's a story worthy of the Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum."

One of the world's greatest composers (Sergei Rachmaninoff) teams up with one of the world's greatest choreographers (Michel Fokine) to create a ballet based on the legend of the diabolically talented violinist, Niccolo Paganini.

Set to Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," the "Paganini" ballet was premiered in 1939 in London by the legendary Ballets Russes, then sank from sight after World War II broke out and the troupe was scattered to the four winds.

Now, more than 70 years later, a portion of that original ballet has been resurrected and will be presented by the Napa Valley Festival del Sole as part of its Dance Gala on July 19.

The performance, featuring members of Ballet San Jose with special guests from American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, will include a suite from the one-act, 35-minute "Paganini," among other ballets.

"This year we're just giving a glimpse," said Sharon Swim Wing, the driving force behind the "Paganini" project. "The full ballet will be performed next year."

Festival del Sole will also present a recital of Rachmaninoff's works for piano, cello and soprano on July 17 at Opus One winery, as a gala celebration of the 140th anniversary of his birth.

Wing was living in Moscow with her husband during in the early '80s and again in the early '90s, when she found herself drawn to the story of Rachmaninoff's life.

"I always had a passion for history and classical music," she said. "I wanted to know the man and the times."

She was inspired to start her research after witnessing how Moscow honored composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky on the anniversary of his birth. In her mind, Rachmaninoff deserved the same kind of recognition.

"Rachmaninoff had been neglected," she said. "He was often written off as a Romantic movie score composer, which was so far from the truth."

Although the composer was considered to be quite dour and introverted, Wing discovered that he was really a kind and generous soul.

"He helped so many people," she said, "but he did it modestly and quietly."

When she stumbled across some letters between Rachmaninoff and Fokine, she decided to tell the composer's story through the lost "Paganini" ballet.

"The Paganini legend ... is a story of the artist's struggle," she said. "It seems to epitomize Rachmaninoff's philosophy of life, his work and his art."

The legend grew from reality. The Italian violinist's playing was so perfect that people believed he had sold his soul to the devil. The religious undertones spoke to Rachmaninoff as well.

"He was Russian Orthodox and a believer," Wing said. "The message of the ballet is the triumph of good over evil."

Wing traveled all over the world to talk to surviving dancers from the original "Paganini" production, which was only performed for a brief time in the early '40s.

Her research led her to Los Angeles to interview ballerina Tatiana Riabouchinska, who danced the role of the Florentine Beauty, and to Australia to talk to Irina Baronova, who danced the role of the Divine Genius. Both dancers have since passed away.

Wing also went to Rio de Janeiro to talk to Tatiana Leskova, who danced the role of Envy and later took over the Florentine Beauty role.

According to the dancers, Fokine created roles with specific dancers in mind and wanted them to view the work as an organic whole.

"That's what's so interesting about this era," Wing said. "The dancers were acting as well as dancing. It came from within."

Along the way, Wing gathered photographs, a costume from the original ballet and other artifacts that will be on exhibit at the Napa Valley Museum through July.

The exhibit also includes reproductions of the ballet's set designs by Sergei Soudeikine, and an original score with notes made by Rachmaninoff.

Seeing the ballet come back to life, with live accompaniment by the Russian National Orchestra, is a dream come true for Wing.

"These are very famous, top talents in their fields who ... overcame such adversity," she said. "They came together for this one work of art, which is about the struggle of the artist.

"I just want it to be a tribute to all these incredible artists."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.