Becherovka in Prague
It’s Christmastime in Prague.
The Christmas market is up under the Charles Bridge, with an enormous tree fit for a city with the largest castle complex in the world. Parents drink grog and kids stuff themselves with mittfuls of trdelnik (pastries), and everyone tries not to break their necks on icy cobblestones. Meanwhile, across the Vlatva River, it’s Nutcracker time at the Prague National Theater.
It’s the first time Petr Zuska, Artistic Director of the Czech National Ballet, has staged his version of the classic Christmas tale, so nerves must be on edge backstage. He’s conceived of something slightly different, likely to upset the purists, but innovation isn’t foreign to the city that gave us Kafka, Dvorak, and Mucha.
In front of the stage, you can tell the tourists from the locals by how everyone is dressed. The locals go all out—men in dark suits and ties, sometimes even tuxedos. The women are artfully coiffed and wear long backless gowns, or at least smart dresses with stockings and heels.
And this being the Nutcracker, there are the children. The girls have their hair curled, bows on their dresses, followed by parents brushing the creases off their backs. The boys are stuffed into slacks and sweater vests, sometimes with a striped tie they still haven’t figured out how to breathe through. The whole family poses for a selfie in the National Theater entrance for this year’s Christmas e-card.
The tourists, meanwhile, look like they’ve just marched in from the Salvation Army store, in jeans or khakis, sweaters with the stitching coming out, sneakers and hiking boots with the dust of Prague Castle still clinging to the tops, makeup applied on the tram over. It is the bane of the Prague theater class that they have to share these seats with loud and half-drunk North Americans whose hotels don’t have irons or shoe-shine brushes.
Upstairs in the balcony section, where they sequester the under-paying vermin, it’s time for a Becherovka in the salon. Thirty-eight percent ABV, Becherovka is a pale yellow herbal liqueur that tastes of aniseed and causes a mild afterburn when knocked back in a panic 45 seconds before curtain.
The Jan Becher Company, who exclusively manufacture the stuff in Karlovy Vary, claim only two people in the world know the recipe. Once a week, they enter a secret lab and mix together these secret ingredients, rumored to be a mix of imported and domestic herbs. I presume they then retire to their secret underground lairs, where they share a bottle with Colonel Sanders and the president of Coca-Cola.
Zuska’s Nutcracker is a smashing success, not least his decision to cast two children as leads rather than one. The boy’s nutcracker, rather than being shaped as a Swiss soldier, is just an enormous gadget like you’d buy at Kitchen Collection. He loves it because he can terrorize his sister with it—she gets a plush mouse. Around them, the dancers leap, twirl, and bound, like superhuman bird people.
The orchestra plays, the audience applauds, and it sounds like Christmas in Prague.