Recap of 2021 Semifinal One

It feels so good to have Eurovision back! I knew I missed it, but I didn’t really realize how much of a void last year’s cancellation had left in me until I pressed play on Peacock’s live feed. At last my Mays are complete again.

2021 is such a strong year that my quibbles feel more petty than usual. Every loss is gut-wrenching, even when I totally get why an act didn’t qualify.

No non-qualification was more heartbreaking to me than Ireland’s. Lesley Roy and her team came up with a very cool concept for “Maps” that took Silvàn Areg’s “Allez Leur Dire” staging and cranked it up to 11. There was also a charming third act reveal to show how the whole thing was done. The problem was that it required so much work to pull off that Lesley’s vocal suffered. It also didn’t help that the stagehands couldn’t get it set up fast enough, forcing host Chantal Janzen to vamp after Ireland’s postcard had already aired and delaying Lesley’s performance when she was already on stage. Even if the staging for “Maps” didn’t completely work, I found myself hoping that she would get a second chance to get it right.

(Updated 5/21/2021: The delay was caused by a camera malfunction, not a delay in setting the props up. Still: disruptive.)

I don’t think I was too shocked about the other songs that missed out on the Grand Final. I had expected Croatia to make it through, but I was only mildly stunned that it didn’t. “Tick Tock” is a really good song, but Albina and her dancers were washed out by a sea of neon pink and blue lighting.

Meanwhile, Romania drowned Roxen in so much fog that it was hard to see her for a while. And even when I did catch a glimpse of her, I paid more attention to that one really hammy back-up dancer.

Slovenia and North Macedonia seemed to suffer due to their straightforward staging of big ballads. To steal a point made by Robyn Gallagher and Elaine O’Neill on Twitter, Ana Soklič and Vasil had these big, rich pre-recorded backing vocals with no onstage proxy. They both looked mighty lonely on the big Rotterdam Ahoy stage.

While Australia was hurt a bit by Montaigne not performing in person, I also think the staging was too polarizing to make an already uncompromising song easier to warm to. The special effects pushed viewers away from Montaigne instead of drawing them in, leaving her even more isolated.

Who won the night? Lithuania. The genius of Vaidotas Valiukevičius’ hand gesture dance move is it’s easy to reference whenever the cameras focus on The Roop. The entire delegation were doing it constantly last night, and Vaidotas telling co-host Edsilia Rombley that it stood for “Euro-Vision” made it even more charming. The Roop opened the show, then ensured they were memorable all night.

Cyprus and Ukraine were my other Tuesday winners. Elena Tsagrinou and her team took the “Fuego” staging and added more, well, fuego to it. Even though “El Diablo” left me cold when I first heard it, Elena gave such a warm and playful performance that I fell for her song at last.

But no singer captivated me as much as Kateryna Pavlenko from Go_A. Her intense vocals coupled with her dry, yet soulful stare made “Shum” stand out. The dais prop and the dancers were just there to accentuate her performance, and it bloody worked.

The evening was dominated by bad-ass women. Manizha brought to Rotterdam the most Russian entry ever and used it to subvert Russian norms the entire way. She ended her song with a defiant, “Are you ready for change? Because we are!” It was easy to feel like she was right.

Eden Alene is such a charismatic and purely talented singer and performer that she made the stage her playground. Even if said playground was drenched in the same color scheme as Croatia’s ill-fated entry. “Set Me Free” came alive, and that had all to do with Eden’s skills and sense of style.

Hooverphonic did two smart things in their Eurovision performance. One, they made sure Geike Arnaert was the focal point throughout. All she had to do was look soulfully into the camera to draw audiences in. Two, they did not assume they were just playing another gig, but instead had a thoughtful presentation that made “The Wrong Place” come alive.

Contrast that with “Je Me Casse.” Destiny is still in the mix for the win, but I really wish the Malta delegation just trusted in her talent and poise. She can stand there and sing a phone book and capture people’s attention, but Malta has saddled her with a staging that constantly looks like she’s being put into a box. It reminded me of the staging for Michela Pace’s “Chameleon,” which was also overly fussy. It’s the first time I’ve doubted she could repeat her Junior Eurovision success.

Still, “Je Me Casse” felt cohesive, which is more than I can say for “Mata Hari.” I realize that part of my issue is that I can’t help but think that this was the same staging Azerbaijan had planned for “Cleopatra” last year. Why else would the cobra be in the graphics? As I said in my initial review, I bet this sounds fresh to someone who is just seeing Efendi’s shtick for the first time, but the whole package felt cheap and lazy to me.

While Tix’s performance and staging of “Fallen Angel” are solid, he also got a subtle boost when the producers got cheeky and had him follow “El Diablo.” Tix looked like a sullen fallen angel lamenting the fact that the love of his life was in love with El Diablo instead. Cyprus drew the first half of the Final and Norway drew the second, so the producers could still put them together again at the halfway point of the show. For storytelling purposes.

I did briefly wonder if Sweden was going to miss out on the final. “Voices” is so trite, and it was made even more shallow by following “Russian Women.” But I will give Tusse and the Swedish delegation a lot of credit: The staging made “Voices” look more deep than the generic lyrics would suggest. And even though his vocal wasn’t perfect, Tusse is such a powerful presence that it’s easy to see why he qualified.

In the end, Tuesday wasn’t really a night of surprises. Along with a lot of good performances, we got a solidly entertaining show with a good opener from reigning champion Duncan Laurence, a cool interval act, and mostly unobtrusive hosting from the quartet of emcees. It was all about getting us back into the swing of things, and it succeeded. Not bad for the Semifinal that I thought was the less interesting of the two. Bring on Thursday!