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The Pearl Fishers: Synopsis

Act I

Amid great festivity, the pearl fishers of Ceylon prepare to choose a chief. Just as Zurga is chosen to lead them, his old friend, Nadir, arrives after a long absence.  Together, the two reminisce about the night they encountered a mysterious woman of extraordinary beauty at the gates of Kandy.  Both fell in love with her immediately, but renounced their intense rivalry for her in order to save their friendship.

A veiled woman, Léïla, approaches, chosen as the consecrated virgin whose duty it is to sing and protect the fishermen while they are at sea, but remaining inviolate.  She is presented by the High Priest, Nourabad, and acclaimed by the pearl fishers as she swears an oath of obedience.  But she and Nadir recognize each other before she is led away to the temple, near where she will keep her sacred vigil.  Nadir, despite his assurance to Zurga to the contrary, has never ceased loving her.  When Léïla comes out of the temple, he lets her know he is nearby and will protect her.

Act II

Nourabad reminds Léïla of her sacred vows, warning her on pain of death to remain faithful to her oath.  She assures him that she never breaks a promise, telling the old man that she once refused to reveal the hiding place of a fugitive, even though his pursuers threatened to kill her.  The fugitive gave her the necklace she always wears, proof of her fidelity.

However, later that evening, she and Nadir meet, declaring their love.  Nourabad has witnessed their encounter and calls down a curse on them both, as a storm approaches. Nadir is captured by the temple guards and charged with sacrilege.  Zurga, as tribal chief, claims his right to settle the case and decides to pardon them in deference to his friendship with Nadir.  But Nourabad tears the veil from Léïla’s face, and Zurga recognizes Léïla as the woman he and Nadir both loved.  Revoking his pardon, Zurga swears to have his revenge.

Act III  Scene 1

Zurga regrets his condemnation of Nadir, recalling their friendship. Léïla appears to beg for Nadir’s life, confessing she is willing to die for him if necessary.  Her devotion to Nadir stirs Zurga’s jealousy and renews his intention to have Nadir killed, for which Léïla curses Zurga.  Before leaving to meet her fate, she asks a fisherman one final favor: that her necklace be sent to her mother in the event of her death.  Zurga recognizes the necklace and hastens after her to the place of execution.

Act III  Scene 2

A funeral pyre has been erected, around which the people dance in murderous frenzy. Léïla is brought forward to meet her fate with Nadir.  But Zurga rushes in with the news that the camp is on fire.  As the fishermen run to fight the flames, Zurga confesses to Léïla and Nadir that he set the fire as a diversion, to allow him to free the lovers.  He reveals that he was the fugitive who gave the necklace to Léïla when she saved his life long ago.  He frees them and remains behind as Léïla and Nadir are heard singing about their future together.