When Handel composed Ariodante in 1735, he had access to some of the best opera singers in the world, and his vocal writing made full use of their various talents. Looking into his futuroscope, he would have been amazed and delighted, I'm sure, that the progress in singing has been such his opera could be sung by music college students – however prestigious the music college.

Under the auspices of the London Handel Festival, however, the Royal College of Music showed last night that it is perfectly capable of assembling a group of young singers able to make light of Ariodante's technical challenges. The seven principals were all perfectly in tune, pleasant in tone, decently phrased, powerful enough for the relatively small space of the RCM's Britten Theatre, with articulation of difficult semiquaver coloratura that ranged from plenty good enough to absolutely spot on. As a demonstration of the students' skill, the evening was impressive.

But for all the virtuosity, it was only on a few occasions did the performance connect with my emotions. The chart-topper, as it should be, was "Scherza infida" in Act II: as Katie Coventry, in the title role, swerved between fury and desolation at Ginevra's desolation, I was transported, for the first time, from the confines of the theatre and into the world of deep passions. 

For pure beauty of voice, my vote goes to Simphiwe Simon Shibambu (King of Scotland). From the very first notes of "Voli colla sua tromba", it was clear that his basso profondo is a thing of deep, velvety lusciousness. It will be a few years before Shibambu tackles a Sarastro or a Prince Gremin in a house rather bigger than the Britten Theatre, but when he does, I want to be there. The other voice that stood out for me was Galina Averina as Dalinda, whose soprano had a particular sweetness of tone unbroken by the needs of coloratura runs. Her eulogy to the evil Polinesso, "Del moi sol vezzosi rai," was particularly sweetly sung. The other main roles – Elspeth Marrow as Polinesso, Sofia Larsson in the fearsomely challenging role of Ginevra – were never anything below totally competent, but rarely moved me.

In a great part, that's because the singers weren't getting a lot of help either from the conductor or the director. Under Laurence Cummings, the London Handel Orchestra were vivid, sprightly, full of colour. But the pace always felt slightly rushed – or, more to the point, one sensed that the singers felt it to be so: they struggled to make room for expansive lyricsm, and Ariodante is a poorer opera if shorn of its many changes of pace. And while I agree that it's essential to make cuts in Ariodante – even after cuts, the opera was three and a half hours – cutting all the dance numbers does radically change the opera's balance.

James Bonas's production was a drab affair. Ariodante is notionally set in Scotland (although there's nothing to distinguish this from "any Rennaisance court"); Bonas takes the cue to use a dark, Nordic setting, with dingy lighting and modernish costumes in a sort of bohemian grunge with sheep – more a setting for Macbeth than for Ariodante's plot of ugly deeds in an otherwise beautiful, happy kingdom. There's a lot of shuffling around of curtains, which generates plenty of movement, but to no  purpose that I could discern in advancing narrative or characterisation, and Act III is set around a water feature that I can best describe with the single word "unfortunate". While I accept that budgets are limited for this kind of production, I hoped for more imaginative Personenregie than was on display, with better coaching of "how to behave like a man" for the trouser roles.

In sum, an impressive showcase for Handel's music and for the RCM's singing expertise. But I hoped for more.