Handel’s original version of Acis and Galatea was written in 1717–18 at Cannons, a stately home in Middlesex. Composed with light orchestration, it was not meant to be performed in an opera theatre, but rather in this private mansion. Listening to this production at the Royal Opera of Versailles, it is clear why the Cannons version was adapted so many times – and why some Baroque dramatic works simply do not work without stage support or a larger orchestra.

This sublime “pastoral opera” or “masque” (something between cantata, opera, dance and oratorio) was rarely produced in its original version from Cannons: Handel rewrote several versions (we know of three); Mozart rescored it and translated it into German 70 years later, adding clarinets, bassoons and horns; and Mendelssohn rescored it again in 1829 to fit the 19th-century ear, and beefed up the orchestra even more with additional wind instruments and timpani.

Even though the Opera Theatre at the Versailles Palace, whose interior is entirely made of wood, is perfectly suited for this Baroque performance, something was missing – a certain thrill, expected from Handel, just didn’t come. And I’m still not sure if it was because of this original version of Acis and Galatea itself, or if it was the reduced ensemble of only seven instrumentalists – or perhaps the lack of staging magic, or indeed the unconvincing performers. Or it may have been a combination of all these things.

Acis and Galatea was Handel’s first work in the English language. The librettist John Gay drew the main characters from Greek mythology. They are the same that Handel used in the cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, which he wrote in Italy in 1708. The tale is very simple: Galatea, a water nymph, and the shepherd Acis fell in love with each other, but the fearsome giant Polyphemus brutally interrupts their bucolic romance in Arcadia, and kills Acis in a rage of jealousy. Catharsis is achieved when Galatea, mourning her murdered lover, uses her supernatural powers to make her love eternal by transforming Acis into a stream.

But even from the opening pastoral chorus, “O the pleasure of the plains”, performed by only five singers, it didn’t lift the audience or deliver a punch.

Promising Belgian soprano Sophie Junker, who three years ago won first prize at the London Handel Competion, sang well but lacked transparency of coloratura, sensuality, and some of the darker nuances of Galatea’s character. I expected more moments of magic and Handelian passion. There wasn’t any passionate chemistry with Acis, and her first aria (“Hush, ye pretty waring quire”) didn’t transport me to the expected fever of lingering love.

Another excellent vocalist, tenor Joshua Ellicott, also lacked enthusiasm and assurance and as a bland Acis, neither succeeded in emphasizing the text’s eroticism, nor in creating dramatic tension. The colourful duet for the two lovers “Happy, happy we!” was sung with verve, but without real interaction or support from orchestra.

Bass David Wilson-Johnson’s interpretation of the savage, monstrous Polyphemus was emotionally convincing, though it lacked volume and adequate projection. In “I rage, I melt, I burn”, he somehow succeeded in infusing the theatrical tension and authority of character.

The reduced King’s Consort of only seven instrumentalists, conducted by Robert King, offered a very correct performance, but didn’t manage to stir up real passion or to keep the audience’s attention alive for two hours.

Which is all a pity, because even though it is not easy to bring dramatic vitality and rhythm to a lightly orchestrated Acis and Galatea in the theater, the arias themselves are so inventive and witty, so full of lurking eroticism and hidden tension, that they don’t need any gilt or extraordinary effort to dazzle and burst forth in all their color and passion.