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The Story of 'The Pearl Fishers'

Of the dozen or so operas Bizet composed, only six are still around in performable versions, and only five were actually performed in his lifetime. Amazingly, his masterpiece Carmen was a flop at its premiere in 1875, and Bizet never got to enjoy its worldwide triumph; he died just a few months after its failed first production.

The Pearl Fishers was an earlier opera, written in 1863. Unlike Carmen, its premiere was a respectable success. Today we don't hear it all that often, and its reputation is based mainly on the beautiful tenor-baritone duet in the first act. That number has become a concert showpiece, and it was even performed at Bizet's own funeral service.

The Pearl Fishers is in three acts, all set on the island then called Ceylon, now the nation of Sri Lanka, off the coast of India. ACT ONE opens in a village of pearl divers, or pearl fishers. The fishermen elect Zurga as their tribal chief, promising him their loyalty. A hunter named Nadir shows up. He's been gone for several years and asks the men if they'll take him back.

Then comes the famous, "Au fond du temple saint" — "Deep in the holy temple." Zurga and Nadir are old friends, and they remember their last time together. They had visited the great temple, and both men fell in love with a beautiful woman who was leading a ceremony. Knowing this woman might come between them, they renounced her and pledged their eternal friendship.

The strength of their pledge is soon tested. In the next scene, a canoe arrives carrying this year's consecrated virgin — a veiled young woman whose ritual songs will protect the pearl fishers from danger. Her name is Leila, and she's accompanied by the old priest Nourabad. Leila sings her oath of chastity. Zurga, as the fishermen's leader, promises her the most beautiful pearl if she keeps her oath — and death if she does not.

Leila and Nourabad go into the temple, while Zurga and the fishermen head for home, leaving Nadir behind.

When Leila begins to sing, Nadir hears her and recognizes her songs — she's the woman he and Zurga both fell for years ago. Hearing her now, Nadir is in love all over again. He sings the beautiful "Je crois entendre encore," following his memories back in time, and feels his resolve melting. When Leila hears Nadir's song and approaches him, the two recognize each other and declare their love.

It's nighttime as ACT TWO begins. Nourabad tells Leila she can get some rest, and reminds her of her vow of chastity. She tells a story from her childhood, when she risked her life to save a fugitive, who gave her a necklace in gratitude. She has worn the necklace ever since.

When Nourabad leaves, Leila senses that Nadir is nearby. When he approaches her, she tries to turn him away, but eventually she gives in. As the sounds of a storm are heard, Nourabad returns. He finds the lovers together, and calls for the villagers to seize them.

The guilty pair are forced to appear before Zurga to receive their punishment. At first, all Zurga sees is his friend Nadir and a veiled priestess, and he decides to pardon the couple. But when Nourabad tears the veil from Leila's face, and Zurga recognizes her, he's furious. He retracts his pardon, and instead condemns both lovers to death.

As ACT THREE opens, Zurga is despondent. He has gotten over his jealous anger, and now he regrets the death sentence he handed down. Leila enters and pleads for Nadir's life, telling Zurga that she should die, but Nadir should be spared. Instead of inspiring pity, her plea infuriates Zurga. He becomes jealous all over again and tells Leila that he, too, has always loved her, but gave her up in loyalty to Nadir. Desperate, Leila asks for one last favor. She removes her precious necklace, given to her years ago by the mysterious fugitive, and begs Zurga to give it to her mother.

As dawn approaches, people gather at the holy temple to prepare for the executions. But someone sees a strange light, and the people realize that their village is on fire.

As everyone rushes off to save their homes, Zurga appears and releases the two lovers. It was Zurga who set the fire, as a distraction. He has recognized Leila's necklace, and knows that he was the fugitive she rescued years ago. He forgives Nadir and Leila, and helps them to escape. As the opera ends, the lovers are heard singing in the distance, while Zurga stands alone in the glow of the flames.

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