A Week At The OPERA, Revisited

The MSC OPERA made headlines this week due to an unfortunate electrical failure that left the vessel adrift for several hours in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden.  Here is Peter Knego’s early Sea Treks from one of the ship’s more idyllic Caribbean cruises in 2006 when the OPERA was based in Florida for the winter season.  The newer, larger Musica class MSC POESIA has since assumed the OPERA’s former Caribbean itineraries.


Length: 763 ft
Width: 84 ft
Tonnage: 59,058 gt
Speed: 21 Knots
Passengers:  2055
Crew: 720
Passenger Decks: 9
Lifts: 9
Stabilized
Ship Registry: Panama

MSC LIRICA (left) and MSC OPERA (right) on their first Caribbean rendezvous at Cayo Leventado, Dominican Republic, February 2, 2006. Photo Peter Knego 2006.
MSC OPERA. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

January 29, 2006:

Fortified with a piping hot capuccino, I posted the first portion of my report from the comfort and coral-hued elegance of the Aroma Coffee Bar. The seas outside the picture windows were moderately choppy, large patches of which were darkened by an intermittent cloud cover. A T-shaped staircase loomed just beyond, leading to the lower level of the small atrium where the chatter echoed with a distinctly Italian flair. MSC Cruises’ sparkling 58,600 gt MV MSC OPERA was nearing San Juan, Puerto Rico on a blustery Monday afternoon.

Facing forward from MSC OPERA's Aroma Coffee Bar. Photo and copyright Peter Knego 2006.

The OPERA and LIRICA are slightly refined versions of Festival Cruises’ EUROPEAN VISION and EUROPEAN STARS (now sailing with MSC as the MSC ARMONIA and MSC SINFONIA). Although well-appointed, the earlier pair of ships are typical boxy-looking newbuilds with towering superstructures, and squared off, angular lines. Apparently, MSC’s architects were aware of this when they took over the order at Chantiers de l’Atlantique and with a few strokes of the pen, reshaped the funnels into elegant domes whose curvature is synchronous with a refined and futuristic convex stern. These ships contain design elements of P&O’s ORIANA and AURORA (bow and foredecks), Renzo Piano’s masterful CROWN and REGAL PRINCESSES (pool areas), and even the post war Messageries Maritimes combi-liners with their low, domed funnels.

Facing forward along the midships pool area. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

There are nine passenger decks beginning at the top with the Solarium/Sun Deck forward and continuing aft with a miniature golf course surrounding the base of the funnel. Although I will go into much further detail in my forthcoming report for OCEAN AND CRUISE NEWS, in brief, the suites are found on Deck 12 (La Boheme) which also has a jogging track around the lido and concludes with the Byblos Disco. Deck 11 (Tosca) is fronted by a panoramic gym and spa which lead to a wonderfully uncluttered lido. Protected by large glass panels and set in wood and tan-colored decking, the two large turquoise pools are Hockneyesque with their clean, sculpted lines and restrained modern palette. A large waterfall descends from the mast housing forward, adding a “Roman Villa” ambiance.

Here is an overview of the OPERA’s features:  sheltered lido with two pools; jogging track; large waterfall sculpture; miniature golf course; indoor/outdoor lido; elegant and well-equipped forward facing gym and spa; panoramic disco; eleven cabin categories ranging from inside doubles to balconied suites; cabaret showroom; several piano bars; terraced showroom with comfortable seats and unobstructed sightlines; coffee bar; circular two deck atrium; casino; photo gallery; cyber cafe and a large shopping arcade.

The decor is refined and modern, yet cheerful with restrained color schemes, brass, formica, marble accents and warm wood tones. There is a traditional feel to the public spaces and the ship’s layout.

OPERA's pods stir up the Intracoastal Waterway. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

It was a brilliant Saturday afternoon when we departed Ft. Lauderdale. The OPERA had been berthing at various terminals, including the southernmost pier, 29, since the last hurricane devastated her usual terminal, 4. It was expected she would return to the more convenient location when repairs were completed the next month.

Once freed of her lines, the OPERA’s pods instantly churned the brackish green waters into a muddy white frenzy. We began our journey by passing an armada of modern monoliths. First in line was Holland America’s ZUIDERDAM, whose cliffs of dark blue glass mirrored our brilliant white hull and midnight blue funnel. The seemingly endless skyline of RCI’s JEWEL OF THE SEAS was next, festooned in vertical acres of emerald green glass. By the time we entered the central portion of the harbor, Carnival’s LEGEND had been unleashed from her berth while Celebrity’s CENTURY emitted an anticipatory belch of reddish brown diesel fumes. Princess Cruises’ CARIBBEAN PRINCESS loomed at the north end of the harbor like a top-heavy ice cream sundae, doing her best to make an afterthought of the sleek little former Soviet ISLAND ADVENTURE at her stern. In the midst of this glass menagerie, Paul Allen’s mega-yacht OCTOPUS emulated the 1961-built SS FRANCE with her dark hull and winged funnel.

The OCTOPUS at Fort Lauderdale. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

Heading into the channel past the balconied condos, the OPERA gave revelers a three whistle salute. The jetty on the southern end was empty and blocked off with police tape. Presumably, it, too, suffered hurricane damage and is not yet another shiplovers’ casualty from post 9-11 security fallout.

We turned on a south by southeasterly course with the CARNIVAL LEGEND and CENTURY in our wake, each sporting bones in their teeth in the amber halo of a late afternoon sun.

Our 1500 passengers were American (about 50%) and European (mainly Italian, Spanish, German, and French). This particular cruise featured several major league baseball veterans and a grammy award-winning polka artist in addition to its “in house” entertainment. The shows had a sexy European flair that combined elements of Cirque du Soleil, Commedia dell’Arte, and Italo Disco. The ball players hosted batting and pitching demos and made themselves available to a very appreciative passenger fan base throughout the week.

In the smaller venues, the entertainment was reminiscent of the pre-megaship era of liners like Home Line’s OCEANIC and Italia’s LEONARDO DA VINCI. Passengers participated with the Italian staff in various games and activities that thrived on informality and familiarity. Adding to this ambiance was the staff and crew, many of whom actually did hail from Home Lines, Sitmar, and the pre-Carnival era of Costa and Princess.

From left to right, the OPERA's team: chief officer, chief engineer, hotel manager, Captain Romano, and Rick Sasso. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

In a media gathering on Sunday, the captain gave wonderful props to MSC’s dowager steamship MONTEREY, which will face mandatory retirement in 2008. He called her his “first and best”. MONTEREY is offering a season of seven night cruises from Barcelona this year before sailing to South Africa for a charter to Starlite Cruises.  MONTEREY sailed to the breakers in 2006.

Moderate seas on the second day brought out the usual accessories of behind the ear patches and gray acupressure wrist bands. One day, perhaps, designer versions will be marketed to accompany formal attire.

My cabin was up on deck nine and while my sea legs are not the hardiest, I found the motion of the OPERA fluent and free of the shuddering of most newbuilds.

MSC America’s president and CEO, Rick Sasso, was aboard and gave our press gathering a passionate and candid assessment of the company and its future goals for advancement in the U.S. market.

El Morro and the rocky shores of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

Huge breakers pounded the rocky shoreline of El Morro as MSC OPERA entered San Juan roads. The winged funnel of Carnival’s TRIUMPH loomed over its 500 year old stone buttresses. We berthed between the surprisingly derelict looking CARNIVAL TRIUMPH, balconies streaked with rust and mismatched splotches of paint on her funnel, and the now familiar JEWEL OF THE SEAS. Off in the distance toward greater San Juan lay the EMPRESS OF THE SEAS. Amazing that the former NORDIC EMPRESS (and intended FUTURE SEAS) was now entering middle age! An evening walking through the cobblestone streets and photographing the modern lineup of ships was a treat.

MSC OPERA at San Juan. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

Once we backed into our berth at St Maarten the following morning (Tuesday), fellow writer Shawn Dake phoned from the neighboring cabin. A bit of serious ship watching was to eclipse my morning sleep in. We had just passed the very splendid looking, freshly anchored CRYSTAL SYMPHONY. Behind us and already berthed, were the CARNIVAL LEGEND (looking much more trim than yesterday’s fleetmate) and the ever-present JEWEL OF THE SEAS. On the near horizon, the EMPRESS OF THE SEAS slowly approached and pivoted to make a backward approach to the neighboring berth. Once tied up, she bobbed up and down and swayed from side to side like a restless pony.

The relatively small Franco-Dutch island of St Maarten has become a Caribbean metropolis since my fist visit in 1981 on board Chandris’ BRITANIS. I chose to stay on the ship.

The St. Maarten pier at high occupancy level, from left to right: MV EMPRESS OF THE SEAS, MV CARNIVAL LEGEND, MV JEWEL OF THE SEAS. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

The four ships at the long jetty literally comprised a canyon of white steel, enshadowing those who walked its length.

MSC OPERA would be the first to depart at 4:00 PM for a brisk 21 knot sprint to Santo Domingo.

A word about the cuisine….

The dining room fare, while inconsistent, could be quite extraordinary. The breads were made fresh on board and with varying recipes. Oil and vinegar were available for those who prefer it European style. The appetizers, soups, and salads were all top notch and the main courses, especially the fish dishes, met expectations. An eggplant parmesan one Tuesday night may be among the best entrees I have ever eaten at sea.

The shows were truly outstanding. There is entertainment throughout the evening in almost every public room on board. The main shows cross language barriers by focusing on visuals, dance, pantomime, acrobatics, and the occasional special effect. The sound and light were state of the art but did not consume the talent on stage like so many mega-ship productions.

The MSC OPERA's distinctive domed funnel, as seen from the verdant perspective of La Romana, Dominican Republic. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

On Wednesday morning, February 1, officials from the Dominican Republic came on board for a formal plaque exchange welcoming MSC OPERA to the port of La Romana and its world famous Casa de Campo resort. Among the dignitaries was a Mr. Claudio Silvestri, the CEO/President of Premier Resorts. An Italian gentleman with the style and charisma of a classic movie idol, he allowed us a tour of the resort, its golf courses, marina and private beach.

The multicolored greens of Casa de Campo. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

After lunch, we partook of a horseback riding adventure before returning to the ship. Our evening was spent at the village of Altos de Chavon, a reconstructed Mediterranean villa with stone amphitheater, church, various restaurants and piazzas. Dinner al fresco with MSC America chairman and CEO Rick Sasso and Mr. Silvestri was a major highlight. We had a chance to hear about the heyday of Costa, Chandris, and the forming of Celebrity. Favorites ships such as CARLA C, EUGENIO C, BRITANIS, GALILEO/MERIDIAN and others were discussed.

Stars perform under the stars in "La Kandela". Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

Mr. Silvestri escorted us to the huge arena for a lavish production entitled “La Kandela” which combined elements of Carnivale, Ziegfeld, and Las Vegas under the stars. The band of the Milky Way, Venus, and Mars were visible above as were the eerily lit pillars of a very genuine looking ruined temple in the knoll beyond the stage.

After such a full day, it was hard to not participate in the sailaway festivities on deck, but weariness had firmly set in……

The next morning, Thursday, February 3, I awoke at 8:30, shortly after our arrival at MSC’s out island, Cayo Leventado. Located in Samana Bay on the northern shores of the Dominican Republic, this was my first visit to the area since a 1982 cruise on board Carnival’s SS CARNIVALE (ex EMPRESS OF BRITAIN, QUEEN ANNA MARIA). Adding to the allure, the MSC LIRICA had just berthed beyond us, making this the first meeting of the domed-funneled Italian sisters in the Caribbean.

MSC LIRICA at Cayo Leventado. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

To get to the LIRICA, I had to tender from the OPERA to the very tempting shores of the out island and switch to one of her sister’s tenders. Once aboard, I found the LIRICA to be every bit as nice as the OPERA.

A view of a painting in the MSC LIRICA's Le Cabaret Lounge. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

Her color schemes are cooler and more to my personal taste with violet-tinged blues, burgundy, and earthy browns. That said, it would be difficult to say one is really better than the other.

The MSC LIRICA's showroom, facing starboard. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

Aside from the extra row of balconies on OPERA, the differences between the two ships are minor: LIRICA lacks the waterfall sculpture forward of the pools and does not have a separate library/card room adjacent to the cabaret show lounge.

The MSC LIRICA (left) and MSC OPERA (right) are framed by the flora of Cayo Leventado. Photo © Peter Knego 2006.

My ship-related ventures did not allow much time on the island, itself, but I did manage to eek out a twenty minute swim in its turquoise waters before returning to the OPERA. The two sisters gave each other a rousing salute with four blasts from OPERA being answered by a restrained two from LIRICA as OPERA podded her way into the main channel. Now, as we sail past the rugged, palm-fringed Dominican coastline, the LIRICA has appeared off the starboard stern, a small white dot in a horizon framed by amber-hued clouds.

The final day, Friday, 3 February, found MSC OPERA in gentle swells as she plied the Bahamian archipelago. It wass warm and the skies were partially cloudy, making it a near-perfect sea day.

A behind-the-scenes tour of the waste treatment facility was followed by a brief meeting with Rick Sasso, who has made himself available for interviews and feedback.

I was able to accompany an Italian television crew for a visit to the fo’c’sle and the bridge, where I finally found the builders’ plate.

Lunch, some time at the internet cafe, a splendidly informative presentation by cruise director Franco Pili (a veteran of Chandris, Celebrity and Festival Cruises with tenure on board ROMANZA, THE VICTORIA, AMERIKANIS, BRITANIS, THE AZUR, MSC ARMONIA and many other ships in his 16 year career) about the engine room and wheelhouse, and a backstage tour of the impressive showroom filled a busy afternoon.

Before sunset, there was time to walk the decks, get some fresh sea air, and watch the LIRICA zig zag in the far distance beyond our wake. When the skies darkened, she was like a small glittering necklace on the horizon. A nice but final chat with Aroma Cafe’s lovely, alliterative waitress and aspiring writer, Melanie Mendoza from Manila (who knows the MS PHILIPPINES well) brought me up to date before I clicked “send.”

Packing, goodbyes to new found friends, and another good dinner and show brought the curtain down on my week at the OPERA.

 

 

Martin Cox

Martin Cox

MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland.Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.
Martin Cox
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