The Pearl Fishers
Time: Ancient times
A group of pearl fishers gather along the beach (“Sur la grève en feu”). The pearl fishers select Zurga as their king. During their celebration, Nadir, one of the fishermen, returns after a year spent away in the forest. Zurga persuades Nadir, his former friend, to remain in the village. When they are alone, the two men recall the event that drove them apart. They had once fallen in love with the same woman, but in order to keep their friendship, they swore not to pursue her. They vow again never to let the love of a woman destroy their friendship (“Au fond du temple saint”). The fishermen return with the news that a boat has landed nearby. Zurga explains that an unknown virgin from another island has been chosen to pray for them as they go to sea, protecting them from storms and warding off evil spirits. A veiled woman arrives, escorted by the high priest, Nourabad. Zurga explains the duties required of her. Her faithful obedience will be rewarded, but if she breaks her vows, the punishment is death. Although she reacts to seeing Nadir nearby, the priestess promises to maintain her purity. Nadir is struck by the resemblance of the unknown priestess to Leïla, the woman he and Zurga had sworn never to see. The priestess ascends the rock overlooking the sea to begin her vigil. As she prays, her veil is momentarily lifted and Nadir recognizes the priestess as his beloved, Leïla. Nadir knows that his oath to Zurga means nothing in the face of his desire. Alone, he confesses that he has long dreamt of Leïla and has followed her here (“Je crois entendre encore”). Leïla’s incantation to the Goddess Siva is interrupted by Nadir’s voice, and her hymn is transformed into a declaration of love (“O Dieu Brahma”).
At the ancient temple, Nourabad reminds Leïla that if she remains true to her oaths, she need not fear for her safety. Leïla recounts an instance when she remained faithful in the face of death (“J’étais encore enfant”). As a girl, she once offered sanctuary to a fugitive, and although her life was threatened, she refused to divulge his hiding place. He rewarded her with the pearl necklace that she wears. When the priest leaves, Leïla is unable to sleep, knowing that Nadir is near. (“Comme autrefois dans la nuit sombre”). When he approaches, she warns him that if they are seen together, they will be punished with death. But his passion overwhelms her, and the two rejoice in each other (“Léïla! Léïla!…Dieu puissant, le voilà!”). Promising to return for her, Nadir slips away. Shouts are heard. The angry villagers and priests apprehend Nadir and prepare to sacrifice both him and the woman who was with him. They do not recognize Leïla, who is veiled. Zurga stops the men, crying that as the leader it is he who decides who can be punished and when. In his new authority as King, he orders that their lives be spared, and he whispers to them to leave at once. But Nourabad rips off Leïla’s veil and Zurga is instantly furious. Nadir and he had promised to forego their love for this woman; Nadir has betrayed him. He condemns them both to death. As they are led away, both captors and captives pray for the aid of Brahma (“Brahma divin Brahma!”).
Zurga regrets what he has done (“L’orage est calmé”). Nadir has been his friend all his life, and he has now condemned him to death for loving the woman he himself so desperately loves. Though Nadir broke a vow to him, Zurga wants to be the nobler man. Leïla comes to him, begging for him to save Nadir. She claims that she sought out Nadir, not the other way around. When Zurga realizes how much she loves Nadir, his jealousy is inflamed (“Je suis jaloux”). Nourabad arrives to take Leïla away. As she is led away, Leïla gives her necklace to one of the villagers, asking him to take it to her mother when she is dead. Zurga spots the necklace and snatches it from the man. Just before dawn, the villagers prepare a pyre for Leïla and Nadir and wait for sunrise. As the villagers are singing and dancing in bloodthirsty anticipation (“Dès que le soleil”), Nadir and Leïla are led in by Nourabad. Leïla and Nadir prepare for death. Zurga suddenly appears, crying out that the village is on fire. As the villagers run out in confusion, Zurga tells Nadir and Leïla that he set the fire so that he could free them. He had recognized Leïla’s necklace, for he was the fugitive whom Leïla had saved long ago. Zurga’s rage has passed, and he knows that he could never live with himself if he allowed the woman he loves and the friend of his youth to die. The lovers escape but Zurga remains to face his fate alone (“Plus de crainte…Rêves d’amour, adieu!”).