Opera in three acts.
Libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré.
First performed at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on 30 September 1863.
On a wild and arid beach on the island of Ceylon, a group of pearl-divers are setting up their camp. Some are pitching the tents while others are drinking and dancing. They sing about how each year they return to this place on the burning sand to dive for pearls and how the dancing of the dark-eyed maidens will drive away the evil spirits. One of them, Zurga, arrives and reminds them that the time has come when they must elect a leader, someone watchful and brave who will lead and protect them. The divers tell Zurga that it is him whom they want to be their king; he asks them if they swear to obey him and let him rule without interference, and when they do, he agrees to lead them. A stranger approaches the camp, and Zurga recognises him as Nadir, a friend from the past: the divers refer to Nadir as a hunter of the woods, and Nadir tells them how he has hunted tigers, jaguars and panthers in the forests and the grasslands. Zurga urges Nadir to join their band, to drink with him and to dance and sing with the divers.
Zurga and Nadir recall how they had agreed never to see each other again after they had both fallen in love with the same girl, and they launch into an extended duet, telling first how they were in the city of Kandi when they saw a beautiful girl in the Hindu temple there (this is the famous ‘Au fond du temple saint’) and how the crowd was so smitten by her beauty that everyone knelt, convinced that they had seen the goddess; then (in a less passionate and more Offenbachian part of the duet) they recall how they realised that they had both fallen in love with her and that their friendship was threatened. They agreed to forego love and remain friends until death. Zurga fled far away, eventually joining the divers, while Nadir found solace among the wolves and the birds of the woods.
A boat approaches, and Zurga gives thanks to Brahma. Nadir asks Zurga who he was expecting to arrive on the boat and Zurga replies that every year the oldest of the pearl divers goes off to seek out an unknown holy woman, as beautiful as she is wise, who comes to pray over their endeavours and keep them from harm. No-one may see her or approach her. The priestess, hidden behind a veil, disembarks, accompanied by a priest, Nourabad. The chorus of divers welcome the unknown protectress and Zurga, as their leader, asks her to confirm that she will remain veiled, keep her oath to pray for the divers, and to keep evil away with her chants, with no friend, no husband, no lover. The priestess agrees to all this, and Zurga reminds her that if she breaks her oath, the penalty is death. Nadir, hearing her voice, realises that she is Leila, the woman he fell in love with, and Leila too recognises Nadir. Zurga realises that she is trembling and suggests that she leave them since she obviously senses something threatening, but Leila declares that she will stay, even though her life might be in danger. The chorus kneel and thank Brahma for giving them protection, then Leila and Nourabad leave to climb the hill up to a ruined temple. Zurga leads the divers back to the camp, and Nadir is left alone.
Nadir is in turmoil. He questions whether he is dreaming it all, but realises that he has indeed found Leila again. He says that he should have told Zurga the whole story – how, unable to leave Leila, he had followed her after the encounter in Kandi and hid himself so that he could hear her singing. In a passionate and cruelly high and delicate aria, he sings how he can still hear her voice and feel the rapture of that time when she sang on that enchanted night.
Leila, led by Nourabad, reaches the ruined temple and sings to Brahma and to the goddess Siva while the chorus, below on the beach, comment on her song. Nadir hears it too, and it confirms his passion for Leila. She realises that he can hear her, and as the Act ends, Nadir swears to protect her as the chorus urge her to keep singing to keep them safe.
A distant chorus tells of night falling. Nourabad, Leila and a load of fakirs are in the temple. Nourabad tells Leila that she may rest now. The sea protects her on one side, and the divers on the other. Leila tells Nourabad how once, when she was a child, a fugitive came to her home and begged for protection. She took him in and even though a wild horde came and threatened her, she did not give him away. When night fell, and the man was able to escape, he gave her a chain, asking her to keep it as memory of him and of her bravery, and swearing never to forget her. Nourabad acknowledges this story, but reminds her that if she fails in her duty now, Zurga will have her killed.
Alone, Leila remembers how she used to know when Nadir was close by, listening to her – and now she has seen him again (this is a delightful aria – a foretaste of Carmen, if you are looking for things like that). Nadir approaches and the lovers eventually meet. Leila tries to urge Nadir to leave and not to risk his life for her, but nothing will stop him now and their duet becomes a passionate declaration of love. They revel in the moment, and a clap of thunder presages an approaching storm.
In a panic, they agree to part, but to meet each night under the cover of darkness. Nadir leaves, but shots are heard. Nourabad enters with some guards. He calls up all the divers, and as they reach the temple, the storm breaks. The chorus sing of the stormy sea and the terrors of the night and call on Brahma to help them. Nourabad and the guards return with Nadir. Nourabad tells the divers that the stranger has crept up on the priestess and she had admitted him to her presence. The chorus, horrified, call for death for both Nadir and Leila. Leila is horrified and Nadir swears to protect her. As the divers close in with their daggers drawn, Nadir stands in front of Leila and defies them.
Zurga enters and reminds the divers that they have agreed to obey him. He urges Leila and Nadir to flee, but Nourabad tears off Leila’s veil so that everyone can see her face. In horror, Zurga recognises the woman he too loves (Leila’s love music reappears briefly) and in a rage, he tells the divers that the guilty couple will die. The Act ends as Nadir and Leila ask Brahma to help them and the chorus ask Brahma to protect them as the sacrilegious pair are punished.
In his tent, Zurga, alone, reflects on what has happened. The storm is dying away. Zurga is horrified that he has condemned his friend and the woman he himself loves to death. He begs their forgiveness.
Leila is brought in by two guards and asks to speak to Zurga alone. He is smitten by her beauty, but she tells him that she alone is guilty and that he must not kill an innocent man who came across her purely by chance. Zurga is delighted to hear that his friend is innocent, but in her ardour, Leila reveals that Nadir is her only love. Zurga, again horrified by her rejection of him, tells her to spare her prayers – she and Nadir must both die. He tells Leila that he has loved her too, and by the double sacrifice, he will be avenged and the lovers will be united. Again, Leila urges Zurga to kill her and spare Nadir, but he is adamant.
Nourabad arrives to tell Zurga that the execution is ready. Resigned, Leila takes off a necklace and as she is led away, she gives it to a young pearl diver, asking him to return it to her mother after she is dead (so she cannot have been all that unknown). Zurga snatches the necklace, and, with a cry of horror, rushes after Leila.
Nadir is on a pyre awaiting death. ‘Drunken Indians are dancing around menacingly’. The divers are waiting for dawn before they carry out the execution. Nadir still hopes to save Leila by dying on her behalf. Nourabad and the fakirs arrive with Leila, and the lovers fall into one another’s arms and prepare to welcome death.
A red glow is seen and Nourabad and the divers welcome the dawn because the new day means that the executions can begin, but Zurga enters with an axe and tells them that the glow is not the dawn, but that their encampment is on fire – flames sent by the gods. He urges the divers to go and rescue their families. Alone with Nadir and Leila, he tells them that it was him who set the camp on fire. With the axe, he severs their chains. He shows Leila the necklace and tells her that he was the stranger who asked for help and that just as she once saved him, he will now save her. He tells them to escape while they can; Leila asks what will happen to him, but Zurga replies that only god can see into the future. As the terrified divers rush away to save their families from the flames, Zurga alone stands by the statue of Brahma and the opera ends as the voices of Nadir and Leila are heard in the distance.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
- Georges Bizet’s life and his operas
- The life and librettos of Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré
- The background to Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs des Perles: false starts and the birth of the opera
- Les Pêcheurs des Perles was originally to be set in Mexico – but why Mexico? and why Ceylon?
- Pearl fishing in Ceylon
- Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs des Perles reaches the stage at last: the first cast and the opening night
© Roger Witts 2009