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Originally published March 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 7, 2008 at 3:52 PM

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The "Tosca" trail | A beloved opera's real-life sites in Rome

Travelers to Rome, Italy, still can see the church Sant'Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese (the Farnese palace) and Castel Sant'Angelo, famous sites from the opera "Tosca" now playing at Seattle Opera.

Seattle Times Travel staff

Seattle Opera's performances of "Tosca" are drawing crowds of music lovers. Now those who can't get enough of the beloved Italian opera can set out on the "Tosca trail," visiting the real-life sites in Rome where the opera is set.

Like most operas, "Tosca," composed by Giacomo Puccini, is the story of a tragic love affair. Its romance, violence and glorious music play out in three historic buildings in the heart of the Italian capital.

Even for those who aren't "Tosca" fans, the sites — an ornate church, a 16th-century palace and an ancient Roman mausoleum turned prison and papal stronghold — are fascinating places to see.

Sant'Andrea della Valle

What happens here in "Tosca": The opera, set in 1800, opens in this church where Floria Tosca comes to see her lover, Mario Cavaradossi. Jealousy and intrigue are sowed as the villainous police chief Scarpia, who controls Rome and lusts after Tosca, arrives in pursuit of an escaped prisoner.

What you see now: A glorious Baroque basilica designed in 1524 of white marble, gold stucco and enormous frescoes depicting the life of Saint Andrew, for whom the church is named. The church is near Piazza Navona, one of Rome's most famous squares. Its dome is one of the tallest in Rome and towers over the narrow streets behind it. Inside, the din of Rome's traffic fades and sunlight spills through high windows.

Tips: Like many Roman churches, Sant'Andrea della Valle closes in the afternoon; it's open daily from 7.30 a.m. until noon and from 4.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. It usually has more tourists than worshippers, as do many Roman churches (admission is free; donations are appreciated).

What's nearby: Piazza Navona, just a block away, is an ideal, if expensive, place to sit, have a cappuccino and watch the world go by. Or get a coffee at Caffè Sant'Eustachio in another nearby square; it's reputed to have among the best coffee in Rome. Just a few minutes' walk is the Pantheon, the ancient Roman temple-turned-church with its famous hole in the dome that admits daylight.

Palazzo Farnese

What happens here in "Tosca": In the second act, the malevolent Scarpia is in his study in Palazzo Farnese, a Roman palace. Tosca and her lover Cavaradossi are brought to him. Tosca desperately bargains with Scarpia for Cavaradossi's life as he's dragged away to face prison and execution. She agrees to yield to the police chief's lust in exchange for a mock execution of her lover. Tosca sings of her anguish in the famous aria "Vissi d'arte," then, finding a knife, stabs Scarpia to death.

What you see now: Palazzo Farnese is one of Rome's most sumptuous Renaissance palaces, built in the 1500s partly under the direction of Michelangelo. It's just a few minutes walk from Sant'Andrea della Valle or Piazza Navona. Once a private palace for one of Rome's noble families, and adorned with magnificent frescoes and furnishings, it now houses the French Embassy.

Tips: Free 50-minute tours of Palazzo Farnese are offered through the embassy on Mondays and Thursdays. They're offered only in Italian and French, but even if you don't understand either language it's worth taking the tour to see the stunning interior. Children under 15 are not admitted; photo ID is required. E-mail tour requests to visitefarnese@france-italia.it or see the French Embassy Web page for more information: www.ambafrance-it.org/ (click on the "L'Ambassade" photo and then "Le Palais Farnese").

What's nearby: The palace fronts the lovely Piazza Farnese, a cobbled square with fountains, an outdoor cafe and the tiny St. Bridget church. It's much more peaceful than the nearby Campo de' Fiori, a square that bustles with nightlife and a morning street market. (The University of Washington's Rome Center for study abroad is located in one of the buildings on Campo de' Fiori.)

Castel Sant' Angelo

What happens here in "Tosca": The opera's last act is set on the rooftop of this almost 2,000-year-old, fortresslike building where a statue of the Archangel Michael looms. Cavaradossi is brought to the rooftop by soldiers for his execution, and he sings of his love for Tosca in "E lucevan le stelle," one of the most beloved of all opera arias. Tosca rushes in and tells her lover of the feigned execution. The soldiers fire, Cavaradossi falls and Tosca discovers the police chief Scarpia has deceived her: Her lover has been executed for real. Despairing, Tosca flings herself off the rooftop to her death.

What you see now: Castel Sant'Angelo is one of Rome's not-to-be-missed sights, on the banks of the Tiber River (and just a 15-minute walk from Palazzo Farnese and Sant'Andrea della Valle). It's been turned into a national museum that even children will love, with everything from displays of armor and piles of stone cannonballs to spooky passageways and ornately decorated rooms. Castel Sant'Angelo was built around 135 A.D. as a mausoleum for the Roman emperor Hadrian. It was converted to a fortress several hundred years later, served for centuries as a state prison, and in the Middle Ages and into the 1500s sheltered popes during some of Rome's many conflicts. The elegantly frescoed papal rooms on the upper floors are open to visitors.

Tips: A rooftop coffee bar has outside tables with lovely views of the dome of St. Peter's. Get to Castel Sant'Angelo early to beat the tourist crowds (and to snag a cafe table with a view). Admission is about $7; for more information see www.castelsantangelo.com/.

What's nearby: St. Peter's Basilica is about three blocks away, and the Vatican Museums also are an easy walk.

Kristin Jackson: kjackson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2271

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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