By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter, BBC News, in Helsinki
The 52nd Eurovision Song Contest started with a bang in the Finnish capital as 28 countries fought for the right to perform on Saturday night's final.
Helsinki's Hartwall Arena was oddly empty for the sold-out show, with several blocks of seats abandoned - but the die-hard fans let out a rousing cheer as the familiar refrain of Te Deum heralded the start of the evening's proceedings.
Georgia secured entry to the final in their first ever year at the Eurovision
The competition was fierce. With so many acts, many felt they needed a gimmick to stand out and win the public vote.
Georgia's Sopho chose to complement her rousing power ballad Visionary Dream with a galley of sword-toting dancers and promptly secured entry to the next round.
Norway's Guri Schanke was less fortunate, despite pulling off three costume changes in as many minutes.
The Eurovision show is intensely physical, with stage hands getting just 30 seconds between acts to drag out props, drums, guitars and, in some cases, performers.
But the stage itself is rather clumsy, leaving a large gulf between the artists and the audience which resulted in an oddly muted reaction to many of the acts.
Those that did reach out across the divide were the seasoned performers - like Edsilia Rombley, making her second appearance for the Netherlands.
Denmark's Drama Queen put on an elaborate show
But the home crowd's reactions gave little indication of the way TV viewers around Europe would eventually vote, and Rombley was sent packing.
Denmark's cross-dressing DQ (Drama Queen) received a standing ovation for a Kylie-esque dance routine replete with feather boas - but failed to qualify for the next round.
The mini rock opera staged by Switzerland's DJ Bobo, titled Vampires are Alive, also got the crowd on their feet, but left the general public cold.
Indeed, voters proved suspicious of any attempt to cash in on the hard-rocking success of the 2006 winners, Lordi.
Iceland, Croatia and the Czech Republic all chose long-haired guitar gods as their Euro-ambassadors, and all found themselves without a place in Saturday's grand final.
Belarus - Koldun
FYR Macedonia - Karolina
Slovenia - Alenka Gotar
Hungary - Magdi Ruzsa
Georgia - Sopho
Latvia - Bonaparti.lv
Serbia - Marija Serifovic
Bulgaria - Elitsa Todorova & Stoyan Yankoulov
Turkey - Kenan Dogulu
Moldova - Natalia Barbu
There was disappointment, too, for Andorra's perky Busted tribute band, Anonymous.
But perhaps it was less a reaction to Lordi and more an application of the first rule of Eurovision: get yourself noticed.
The award for strangest stage performance of the evening went to Serbia, whose singer Marija Serifovic, was slowly groped by a chorus of bouffant beauty queens.
She won the chance to repeat the experience on Saturday night.
A strong vocal performance by six-man pop-tenor ensemble Bonaparti.lv also saw them go through to the final.
And the explosive percussion of Bulgarian opening act Elitsa Tordova and Stoyan Yankoulov stayed in voters minds long enough for them secure a place, too.
The most fanatical fans in Finland this week hail from Turkey and they witnessed pop star Kenan Dogulu sail through to the finals.
His performance featured that old Turkish stand-by - a troupe of belly dancers - but the young singer added a pinch of spice at the end of his song, Shake It Up Shekerim, by throwing around what appeared to be a pair of his own underpants.
Dogulu, who has already scored 24 number one hits in his home country, now becomes one of the final's firm favourites, not least because of his large expatriate fan-base across Europe.
Bulgaria's drum-heavy opening number got the crowd on their feet
Tonight's winners join 14 other countries who went through to the final automatically and therefore have only one chance to woo Eurovision voters.
Among them are the UK's entry, Scooch, who sneaked into the semi-finals to check out the competition.
"I come from a theatrical background so for me the more theatrical and camp acts were the ones I liked," said singer David Ducasse, who was decked out in a lurid pink air steward costume.
"But it's great to see the stage from the audience's point of view, because you don't really get that perspective during rehearsals.
"It's been interesting to see that some of the backdrops were quite samey and not very colourful. Ours is quite different so hopefully that will make a difference at the final."