The Pearl Fishers
Opera in 3 acts by Georges Bizet
Text by Michel Carré and Eugène Cormon
First performed Théâtre-Lyrique, Paris - September 30, 1863
The action takes place in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), on a sea shore where the native pearl fishers come annually to dive for pearls. Zurga tells the fishermen they should choose a leader for the pearl fishing and they unanimously swear loyalty to him.
Nadir returns to the island and is recognised by Zurga as his old companion. On their travels together they had both fallen in love with a priestess they saw in a temple at Kandy. They then promised each other, for the sake of their friendship, to give up any thought of her and now they reaffirm their friendship.
A priestess, chosen for her purity form all the temples of the island, arrives to preside over the ceremonies to protect the divers. Her singing is to charm the demons of the deep and to ward off the spirits of the storm. Although she is veiled, Nadir recognises her voice as that of the priestess he loves. Zurga imposes an oath of chastity upon her on pain of death; her reward for keeping the divers safe from harm will be their finest pearl.
Nadir listens as Leila begins her vigil of incantation. Finally, he can resist no longer and calls up to her: she breaks off, answering his love.
Nourabad tells Leila that all the fishermen have returned safely and that she can now sleep in the sanctuary until morning. He stresses the importance of her vow. As proof of her ability to keep her promise, she tells him how, as a little girl, she protected a fugitive and never revealed him to his pursuers. For his thanks, the man gave her a necklace, which she wears to this day.
She falls asleep dreaming of Nadir. He makes his way into the sacred enclosure and they are rapturously reunited. He leaves her when a violent storm breaks overhead but he is captured, and Nourabad denounces them both for sacrilege. Zurga tries to protect his friend from the fury of the superstitious natives who had demanded his immediate death. Nourabad whips up their frenzy and Leila's veil is torn from her. When Zurga recognises her as the priestess from the temple in Kandy, he sees that Nadir has betrayed their oath to forget her and angrily demands death for the guilty couple.
Zurga's anger has passed and he sadly reflects on Nadir's fate. Leila pleads for him saying that she alone was culpable. For the first time she sees that Zurga loves her. He relents, but his jealousy reawakens when she shows how much she loves his rival. He allows Nourabad to take her to the sacrificial pyre. Before she goes, however, she gives him a necklace to be sent to her mother. With a cry of recognition, he runs after them to save them.
The pearl fishers prepare for the ritual deaths of Leila and Nadir. At the last moment Zurga stops them with the news that their camp is on fire, and all their women and children are in danger. He reveals to the captives that it was he that Leila saved so many years ago and that he must now repay his debt of gratitude for her bravery. He has himself fired the camp in order to give them the chance to get away and, gratefully, they make their escape.
Léïla - Priestess
Nadir - Pearl Fisher
Zurga - King
Nourabad - High Priest