Having been spoiled by the awesomeness that was the Måns & Petra show last year, I was bracing for a letdown this year.  Well, yes Måns & Petra still could not be beat, but the three male hosts this year, Oleksandr SkichkoVolodymyr Ostapchuk and green room commentator Timur Miroshnychenko are appealing and entertaining enough–I guess four years of watching Miss Supranational acclimated me to their Slavic accents.  Sure i know they also drew flak for the fact that three white male hosts seems to be a contradiction to this year’s slogan, “Celebrate Diversity”, but well, we make the most of what we are given.

It seems the three hosts are not known to be singers, nor have the acting chops to sustain a comedy skit, so their comedy is reduced to a few corny asides.  So for the comedy skit in the interval, they relied on a tried-and-true act–Verka Serduchka (with “Mother”).  Their presence is a treat and is amusing, generating some gentle chuckles..

The opening number was provided by Ukrainian artist Monatik, with the funky R&B/rap jam “Spinning“.  It’s upbeat and listenable.

For the interval, last year’s champion Jamala was on-hand to perform two songs.  First was an orchestral version of her winning song “1944” and then a Ukrainian language avant-garde electro-folk number, “Zamanyiy“.  Jamala still delivers on the intensity in the first number, and was also faultless in the second number.

I got nine out of ten correct.  If I stuck to my previous prediction, I could’ve gotten a 0erfect score–but still, the one I didn’t get was in my “Bubbling Under” list.  To Cyprus (Hovig)‘s credit, the visual effects and the unusual choreography gelled when it counts, and with the help of high points from its blocmates Greece and Armenia, it earned its slot to qualify for the final.

I’m surprised that there are glaring flaws among some of the qualifiers.  For instance, Belgium (Blanche) is still wobbly live, though some feel the wobbliness works somewhat as the song does require the singer to be emotionally vulnerable.  I suppose it squeaked by because of the high regard fans and juries had for the studio recording.  It’s for me this year’s equivalent to Kati Wolf’s “What About My Dreams” from Hungary back in 2011.

Also surprisingly marred by a bum note was Australia (Isaiah) as he botched a high note in the chorus.  But it was reported that during the Jury Final the previous night, he was able to hit all his notes well, so perhaps the high jury score and enough votes from a pop-leaning audience helped him hurdle that big flaw and sustain this country’s finals streak.

Solely on a singing standpoint, I have to add Greece (Demy) as a disappointment.  Demy reportedly has been saddled with problems hitting the soaring high notes of the chorus that she had to sing a few keys below the recording and have her backup vocalists do the high notes.  At least she has her strong staging (with reverse waterfall effects) and those two hunky shirtless male backup dancers to keep this entry in contention.

Those botched vocals that went through made it appear that there is a gross injustice for some entries that delivered flawless vocals.  First, let’s talk about Finland (Norma John), who many had deemed a shoo-in.  I presume this entry actually ranked high with the juries but fared low with the televote.  We’ll find out if my theory holds true after the final.

Georgia (Tamara “Tako” Gachechiladze) and Albania (Lindita Halimi) are big-voiced divas and both delivered teh expected vocal fireworks.  It’s just that their entries are ballads that came early in the running order so they may be hampered by that.

Similarly flawless vocally was Iceland (Svala).  For the third year in a row, this country fielded a quality entry that just somehow failed to connect with the juries and the public.  Not even a white heaving cleavage-baring jumpsuit could sway votes her way  I still love her and hope to see her in a tour with Norway’s Margaret Berger and Bulgaria’s Poli Genova.

I know there are a lot of Eurovision fans upset over the exclusion of Latvia (Triana Park).  But I’m not that surprised as I know the fact that lead singer Agnese doesn’t quite hit her notes live will bite her in this contest, and indeed it did.

Providing levity and camp was Montenegro (Slavko Kalezić).  It is an energetic performance, but such energy also led to Slavko sounding winded and not quite staying on pitch, and his presentation was surprisingly threadbare.  He’ll be missed in the final, but there will be love lavished on him anyway and will be regarded as a guilty pleasure for years to come.

Now, let’s go to the highlights of the evening.  First I’m overjoyed that Moldova (Sunstroke Project) qualified, as I was worried that based on surprisingly low fan favoritism it might miss the cut.  But that slick choreographed presentation was indelible fun and undeniable.  I also love the fact that Epic Sax Guy demonstrated he can do his famous epic sax riff for 2010’s “Runaway” live when interviewed by Timur in the green room.

As expected Sweden (Robin Bengtsson) transported his Melodifestivalen presentation to Kyiv.  It’s undeniably terrific, and he has a lucky charm among his backup posse, as Alvaro Estrella*1 had served as backup to Eric Saade back in 2011 and Russia’s Sergey Lazarev last year, both of them finishing third place overall.  Robin seems to be heading towards a similar finish, especially with a cycle followed since 2011.*2

*1 He was also an unseen backup vocalist behind Azerbaijan’s Farid Mammadov‘s 2nd place finish in 2013.

*2 2011 – 3rd place, 2012 – winner, 2013 – 14th place, 2014 – 3rd place, 2015 – winner, 2016 – 5th place.  If the pattern holds, Sweden will win its 7th Eurovision title next year.

I have to note that to make way for Alvaro in the posse, they had to let go of the hunkiest member of the original posse in Melodifestivalen–Finnish/Swedish dancer Daniel Koivunen.  Though Alvaro does a good job assuming his role, Daniel’s sexiness is sorely missed.

Daniel Koivunen, you are sorely missed.

Azerbaijan (Dihaj) provided another highlight with her avant-garde arty presentation.  It looks like this country will soar back to the Top Ten in the final after a three-year absence.

The press people covering the contest raved about Armenia (Artsvik), and this continues to deliver.  Can we see an ethno-pop revival in future editions?

Finally, there’s Portugal (Salvador Sobral) and his quiet yet effective performance.  His heartfelt passionate vocals wears down resistance of objectors who initially felt the song is too old-fashioned.  Now the question is–how high will this fare?  And can it derail the supposedly unstoppable Italy (Francesco Gabbani) for the win?

The second semifinal promises to be a less predictable affair.  Will the ex-Yugoslav bloc still work?  Or will some worthy Westerners like Austria and Netherlands prevail?  And can Israel pull through despite botching notes in rehearsal?  Can’t wait to see how it unfolds on Thursday.