Major Operas | Les pêcheurs de perles by George Bizet | High Romantic | Opera

The Pearl Fishers

While the success of Carmen overshadows his other operas, Bizet’s first lasting success was with Les pêcheurs de perles, written when he was only 24.

Set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), it uses gently oriental inflections to portray the priestess Leïla torn between love and her sacred vows, and a more romantic and dramatic style for the conflict between two pearl fishers who are both in love with her. Memorable for its duet in Act I and its overall dramatic continuity, it was revived posthumously after the eventual success of Carmen.

Composed: 1863
Premiered: 1863, Paris
Libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré

Act I

Fishermen are gathered in Ceylon to prepare for their annual pearl-fishing expedition. Zurga reminds them that they need to appoint a leader and at once they swear loyalty to him. He recognizes a new arrival as Nadir, and asks if he has been faithful to the vow they swore years before, when they fell in love with the same priestess. Rather than risk their friendship, they had sworn to renounce her. They then reaffirm their friendship.

A boat arrives carrying Leïla, a veiled priestess selected for her purity, whose singing is intended to ward off any evil that might befall the divers. She takes an oath of chastity on pain of death. Nadir recognizes the voice of the priestess. Zurga notices that she is troubled, but she confirms that she will do her duty. As she takes her vigil, Nadir recalls how he had broken his vow by trying to see her again. He falls asleep and wakens to the sound of her incantation. He calls out and she answers, drawing aside her veil.

Act II

All the fishermen have returned safely. When reminded of her vow, Leïla tells Nourabad, the high priest, a story to illustrate how she can keep her word. When she was a girl she had protected a fugitive to save his life. By way of thanks he gave her a necklace, which she still wears. As she lies down to sleep, she hears Nadir approaching and they are rapturously reunited. He promises to return, but is captured as he slips away. Both Leïla and Nadir are accused of sacrilege. When her veil is torn away, Zurga finally recognizes the priestess he loved and demands that both must die.


Zurga reflects on Nadir’s fate. Begging mercy for Nadir, Leïla claims it was her fault alone. Zurga briefly relents but then orders her to be taken to the pyre. As she goes he notices her necklace. Nadir and Leïla are facing death together. At the last moment Zurga breaks in with news that the camp is on fire. Zurga frees the captives and tells them that he was the fugitive she had saved, and has done this to give them a chance to escape. They embrace and then Nadir and Leïla run off together.

Personalities | Georges Bizet | High Romantic | Opera


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