ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — After the COVID-19 pandemic halted last year's edition, the Eurovision Song Contest roared back to life Tuesday, spectacularly celebrating not just Euro beats, but also the opportunity for fans to watch the first semifinal live.
"We are back, and boy does that feel good!" said Dutch presenter Chantal Janzen after 2019's Dutch winner, Duncan Laurence, opened the show.
Out of the 16 acts who performed, 10 progressed to Saturday's grand final: Norway, Israel, Russia, Azerbaijan, Malta, Lithuania, Cyprus, Sweden, Belgium and Ukraine.
The show had trademark Eurovision elements — bombastic beats, big voices, power ballads, flamboyant costumes and some dress reveals.
Russian singer Manizha emerged in a red boiler suit from an oversized traditional dress, while Israeli performer Eden Alene shrugged off her white mini dress to uncover a skin-tight black costume.
"Thank you for the support. I love my country. I love everyone. And this is for you, Israel," Alene said after the semifinal in a message to her nation, which is engaged in a conflict with the Hamas militant group that has killed more than 200 Palestinians and 12 Israelis.
In Rotterdam, Lithuanian pop-rock band The Roop got the Eurovision party started with the fittingly titled song "Discoteque" and its opening lines: "OK, I feel the rhythm. Something's going on here." They can now extend that feeling straight to Saturday's final.
The competition, which this year spotlights contestants performing 39 songs from nations across Europe as well as Australia and Israel, is one of the largest events staged in Europe since the pandemic began. It is taking place as the continent begins to tentatively emerge from lockdowns and infection-control restrictions.
A crowd of 3,500 — tested for the coronavirus ahead of time — was allowed into Rotterdam's Ahoy arena to watch the performances live. The number was a fraction of the arena's capacity.
Some fans waiting to get in waved national flags. Others dressed up for the show known for its popularity among the LGBTQ community.
Geert van den Berg attended in a purple dress and white wig accessorized with a red feather. His partner, Roberto, wore a short skirt made up of the flags of the participating nations.
"Eurovision is very important for me. We, my partner and me … this is the 10th time we are going to Eurovision," he said. "We like it so much because all countries are together. It's always a party, it's always fun."
For the final, a total of 20 winners from semifinals on Tuesday and Thursday will join contestants from the so-called big five of Italy, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom, along with the representative of host nation the Netherlands.
Australia's act, Montaigne, was the only performer who did not attend the event in Rotterdam because of coronavirus restrictions. Instead, she participated in the semifinal with a recorded live performance and was unable to win over national judges and voters from the public.
Last on stage Tuesday was one of the bookmakers' favorites for the title, Maltese singer Destiny. Her song, with its thumping beat and lyrics underscoring women's strength, showcased the powerful voice of a singer who lists Lizzo, Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion as her musical idols.
"My song is all about female empowerment. It's all about you beautiful women out there," she said.
The first act to go through was Norway's singer TIX who performed his song "Fallen Angel" wearing huge white wings with dry ice billowing around him.
The singer, Andreas Haukeland, uses his stage name as a reference to his youth growing up with Tourette syndrome and the involuntary tics the condition can cause.
"I want people to just feel better because it's been a really miserable year for a lot of people," he said. "And I think it's really time to put mental health on the agenda."
The bookies' favorites before Tuesday's semifinal were Italian rock band Maneskin and French singer Barbara Pravi. They enter the musical fray in Saturday night's final.
At the other end of the age scale from Destiny was veteran Belgian band Hooverphonic, featuring the oldest performer at this year's event, 61-year-old Raymond Geerts. Their understated performance also made it to Saturday's final.
Despite a tight regime of testing, hygiene and social distancing, organizers didn't manage to completely keep the coronavirus out. A member of Poland's delegation and one from the Iceland team tested positive in recent days.
Delegations from Malta and Romania were staying in the same hotel, and all underwent precautionary testing that came back negative, allowing them to take part in Tuesday's semifinal.
Norway's winged singer certainly enjoyed performing in front of a live crowd.
"Finally, like, people meeting together. I had the best time," TIX said.