The first semi-final poses plenty of conundrums for punters. One of these is that whilst the effect of the draw in general terms favours those coming towards the end of the running order, in this case the quality of songs in the second half happens to be far inferior to those in the first half.
But whilst those of us in the press centre had to put up with a lower quality of rehearsal than Martin reported on for Sofabet yesterday, the day also contained the first live glimpses on the Eurovision stage of the two most eagerly anticipated entries in this semi: Hungary and Azerbaijan.
Any summary of proceedings has to begin with these two.
As first rehearsals go, it went pretty badly for Kati Wolf representing Hungary. There are a myriad of things to sort out here and only so many attempts to put them right.
Let’s start with the vocals: she missed different notes in different run-throughs, but a pattern did emerge. She’s not comfortable with the high notes, where she becomes very pitchy. The alarm bells start to ring in the first chorus; and just when she needs to be at her strongest in the final minute, she’s at her most strained.
At the moment, you find yourself forgetting about the song and waiting for the next off-key moment. Everything else on stage – the dancers, the styling – is also working against ‘What About My Dreams’. This needs a serious bout of ‘Extreme Makeover’.
Azerbaijan needs nothing so radical; it just has to make the most of the rehearsal period to add polish. The elements are all effective. The staging is just as they showcased it in Kiev recently, with its strong opening, and in later run-throughs there was a raining fire effect for the final part, which makes complete sense. As expected, the backing singers are clearly coming to Nigar’s aid throughout.
It’s as obviously sailing into the final as before – but its progress within the higher echelons of the leaderboard will depend on how much life they can give it over the next two weeks. It just comes across as a little anaemic at the moment, in need of an extra intangible something. Costumes, pyros and the atmosphere of the big night could all provide the necessary lift.
In sum, Azerbaijan still feels like a contender; at the moment, Hungary does not.
Greece also has reason to be pleased with their first rehearsal, because they are following a very simple strategy that is a vast improvement on the messy national final performance. ‘Watch My Dance’ has My Big Fat Greek Eurovision staging: Greek columns are the backdrop and there is a section of Greek dancing in the final section. Loukas Yiorkas was in good voice and is giving it the full ethno. They threw lots of pyros at the last run-through, too.
The rap section from Stereo Mike remains the weaker link, although the breakdancing that accompanies it is less distracting than it was in the national final. On this evidence, this is another finalist.
Among the less heralded entries, Iceland is nothing that you wouldn’t expect from watching the national final – to me, that means it still sounds a little dated and looks rather smug, but to others it’s charming and unpretentious.
Portugal is another love/hate entry and nothing I saw today is likely to change anyone’s mind from what they previously thought of it. It sounds and looks almost exactly the same as before, and I still find it painful.
I didn’t arrive in Dusseldorf in time for Malta and San Marino, but there was also nothing that surprised me from watching them online. The latter has some potential for jury points, but the danger remains that it is too inoffensive to register with televoters.
The weakest rehearsal of all today was Croatia – full of gimmicks and costume changes being tried out, each one as bad as the one before. If Kati Wolf needs a lot of work, Daria needs a miracle.
The poor quality of today’s offerings was brought home to me when the terribly dated and Disney-esque ‘C’est Ma Vie’ from Lithuania struck me as a pleasant surprise. It’s beautifully lit and simply presented, and – as Portugal 2010 showed – there is a market for a cheesy ballad of this ilk that has a great draw in an otherwise weak run of songs.
However, the sign language that was introduced to one verse in later run-throughs was a layer too far for a song that already lays it on pretty thick. That made me think that the good work that has clearly gone into much of this effort looks likely to go to waste.
The conundrum remains. Clearly there must be some qualifiers from the usually-favoured second part of the draw – we’re looking at Greece and Azerbaijan, at least on today’s evidence (but as I said in my rehearsals preview, the message remains not to take anything for granted after just one rehearsal).
As for the others, either we are going to see a record number of songs get through from the first half, or there are going to be one or two surprises.