5 redenen om uit te kijken naar Agrippina
Photo: Marta Syrko

Five reasons to look forward to... Agrippina

12 December 2023


In Barrie Kosky’s stage direction of Handel’s masterpiece Agrippina, there are no togas and laurel wreaths in sight. Instead, the stage is bustling with designer suits, ties and evening gowns. Kosky has called his take on the opera a dark, theatrical version of House of Cards, a successful drama series in which main character Frank Underwood, a power-hungry politician in Washington D.C., manipulates the political playing field to his benefit. In Agrippina, the female heroine is the ruthless one. She pulls the strings in a male-dominated political landscape. On the flipside, Kosky also shows us how lonely the role of master manipulator can be. Although Agrippina is an opera seria (i.e. a serious opera), Kosky has managed to incorporate a number of comical elements in his staging, as well as highlighting the ironic aspects of the work.


Despite the fact that Agrippina is sometimes referred to as Handel’s first masterpiece, it is rarely being performed. Dutch National Opera has, in fact, never staged it before. Handel wrote the opera towards the end of his sojourn in Italy and the world premiere in Venice was such a resounding success that the opera was performed multiple times, which was unusual then. Although Agrippina earned Handel an international reputation, the opera soon fell out of favour. It is guesswork why it has now regained some of its popularity after just a handful of performances in the twentieth century. Whether this is due to a renewed interest in powerful and layered female protagonists, who is to say? However this may be, it is high time for Dutch National Opera to jump on the bandwagon and stage the production of Agrippina.


Acclaimed mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac will debut in the role of empress Agrippina, after her earlier performances in the Dutch National Opera productions of L’étoile and Idomeneo. She specialises in baroque music, French repertoire and Mozart operas. Versatile American countertenor John Holiday will capture the spotlight as Nerone, Agrippina’s rebellious teenage son. He played this role in Munich last year. Holiday does not shy away from a little improvisation on the opera stage: ‘It might be unusual, but do not be surprised if my ornamentation is slightly different from one night to the next,’ the singer has said about his approach to the da capo arias.


The performance of Agrippina marks the first time that Accademia Bizantina will play at Dutch National Opera & Ballet. This orchestra has become a fixture in the world of baroque music since it was founded in 1983. So much so in fact that, in 2021, the ensemble was nominated for the Orchestra of the Year Award by British classical music magazine Gramophone. The orchestra is known for its chamber music approach to performing. Led by baroque specialist and artistic leader Ottavio Dantone, who is an expert in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century performance practices, the orchestra reads the music through the eyes of someone who recognises and understands what the composer was trying to say.


After having designed the sets for Die ersten Menschen and Giulio Cesare, both of which were directed by Calixto Bieito, Rebecca Ringst is back with some stunning stage scenery. She tends to go for grand structures that can be regarded as ‘congealed concepts’, visually reflecting themes such as power, intrigue and the contrast between public and private. Combined with the costumes designed by Klaus Bruns, this has resulted in a world that feels much more immediate and relevant than the Roman Empire.

  • Dutch National Opera will be performing Agrippina from 13 through 28 January 2024 at Dutch National Opera & Ballet.