LISBON, Portugal, May 12, (Agencies): The kitsch is conspicuously absent this year and the usual extravagant stage effects are nowhere to be seen. Could the Eurovision Song Contest finally be focusing on the music? The annual Euro-pop fest has long been the glittery home of outlandish costumes, high-voltage stage effects, forgettable tunes and kitschy acts like last year’s dancing gorilla. But Portugal — which hosting this year’s event because its entry, Salvador Sobral, won with a restrained solo ballad last year in Ukraine — is putting on a show with stylish, elegant performances by a strong field of competitors. And it’s doing that with a $23.8 million budget that offi- cials say is the most restrained since 2008. That means the 63rd Eurovision Song Contest is heading to what many predict will be an exceptional year.
The hugely popular international event is organized by the European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of public service broadcasters. Every year, more than 40 countries select, through national competitions, the act that each of them they will send to the Eurovision Song Contest. The host country is the winner of the previous year’s event. Portugal won last year in Kiev with an intimate solo ballad by Salvador Sobral, the country’s first victory since it started competing in 1964.
The Altice Arena, a riverside concert venue in the capital, Lisbon, was chosen to host the 2018 competition. Sobral, 28, had a heart transplant in December and has limited his activities, but he is expected to make a guest appearance at the Grand Final in a duet with legendary Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso.
This year saw the return to competition of Russia, a traditional favorite, after missing last year’s event amid a diplomatic spat with host Ukraine. But it was a short return: Russia’s contestant Julia Samoylova went out in the semifinals, while Ukraine singer Melovin advanced to the Grand Final. The Eurovision Song Contest was widely rebuked last year for picking three men to host the show in Kiev. The organizers’ response for Lisbon: four female presenters.
The four are Daniela Ruah, who grew up in Portugal and is a star on the hit television show “NCIS: Los Angeles”, and three women known for their TV work in Portugal: Filomena Cautela, Silvia Alberto and Catarina Furtado. Six countries automatically qualify for the Grand Final: the so-called “Big Five” of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, as well as the host country. Two semifinals last week cut the overall field from 43 to the 26 who will compete on Saturday night. The bookmakers’ favorites this year are: Israel’s Netta Barzilai, with her playful song “Toy”, Cypriot singer Eleni Foureira, with her fiery performance of “Fuego”, and France’s Madame Monsieur with the politically charged “Mercy”, about migrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean on unsafe boats hoping for a better life in Europe. Portuguese winner Sobral last year wore a casual jacket and shirt and gave a soulful, restrained performance that went against the show’s gaudy, Europop orthodoxy.
This year Claudia Pascoal also keeps things simple with “O Jardim” (“The Garden”). History suggests the winner is unlikely to become a household name. Some have gone on to bigger things, however: ABBA, the Swedish winners in 1974; Spanish singer Julio Iglesias, who came out on top four years earlier; and Celine Dion of Switzerland in 1988.