Eurovision mania grips Oslo

Serene Oslo will be the scene of frenzied euphoria Saturday when the Eurovision Song Contest, one of the world's most watched events, blasts off with its trademark blend of kitsch and extravagance.

As in earlier years, the 55th installment of the competition will provide ample room for sexy divas and golden-tanned playboys to strut and croon, accompanied by back-up singers and heavily made up tattooed dancers.

It is set to attract some 120 million television viewers.

According to betting agencies, the singers from Azerbaijan, Germany, Armenia and Israel have the best odds of following in the footsteps of Norwegian violinist Alexander Rybak, who took the top prize last year in Moscow.

It is impossible to say which of the 25 artists and groups performing at the Telenor Arena near Oslo, in front of some 16,000 spectators, will win the hearts of millions of viewers across Europe who can call in to vote alongside professional juries from each country.

In the austere Protestant country where gaudiness is generally frowned upon, all the flashy outfits, decked with glitter and sequins, do not go unnoticed.

"We have to be allowed to let loose once a year. We deserve it," said Rebecca Haugen, a 17-year-old student sitting with her friend Karoline Mantor in the Eurovision village set up between the City Hall and the Oslo Fjord.

For Saturday the pair is planning a girls night in front of the television, shouting out the choruses to their favorite songs in between gulps of wine.

Anja Natvig, 40, is looking forward to taking her husband to the last rehearsal performance, just hours before the show goes live.

"It's a bit extreme but it's very funny, all these costumes and the show," she says.

The event has its critics as well: Forty-three percent of Norwegians think the 200 million kroner (25 million euros, 30 million dollars) spent by public broadcaster NRK for the bash is a waste of its licence fees.

"Eurovision? I couldn't care less," says Jan Saboe, 47.

"But if I were to protest every time public money is misspent, I would never do anything else," he adds.

Organisers have meanwhile stressed that this year the show will be less flamboyant and cheaper than the one put on in Moscow last year, for a whopping 32 million euros.

NRK has however riled football fans across Norway after it sold off its rights to transmit the World Cup in South Africa next month to help finance the giant song contest.

"At the risk of sounding like and old killjoy, I find it sad to use 200 million kroner to display a bunch of mediocre if not embarrassing songs," an editorialist wrote in Norway's paper of reference Aftenposten this week.

As is the custom, the large European countries - Germany, France, Britain and Spain - are automatically qualified for the final, as is Norway as the host of the event.

Bosnia-Hercegovina, Moldavia, Russia, Greece, Portugal, Belarus, Serbia, Belgium, Albania and Iceland made their way past the first semi-final held in Oslo after voting ended late Tuesday.

Ten other countries will qualify in the second semi-final on Thursday.

Inge Solmo, a Eurovision expert and the author of the book "Absolutt Grand Prix" about the contest, said he expected the first place this year to go to Germany, Spain, Sweden or Azerbajan.

And what about Britain, with you Josh Dubovie?

"The UK this year is awful. And you're claiming to be the pop nation," he said.

France's Jessy Matador, with "Allez Ola Ole," was no more impressive.

It sounds like "a football song," Solomo said.