Opera Profile: Bizet’s ‘Les Pecheurs de Perles’

By Logan Martell

“Les Pecheurs de Perles” is an opera composed by Georges Bizet, with the libretto written by Eugene Cormon and Michel Carre. Premiering on September 30, 1863, Bizet was only 24 years old when the curtain first rose. Despite having written previous operas, such as “Le docteur Miracle,” and having won the Prix de Rome scholarship to develop his skills in Italy, his lack of renown in Paris made for a poor opening night where “Les Pecheurs de Perles” was panned by critics. The public, as well as Hector Berlioz, saw great promise in his music, something which would be realized a decade later with “Carmen.”

Short Plot Summary

The opera is set on the island of Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka, amidst the ruins of a Hindu temple. A chorus of pearl fishermen performs a ritual dance to banish evil spirits, shortly before they elect one of their members, Zurga, as their leader. The island is visited by Nadir, whom Zurga recognizes as an old friend. As they reflect on past memories, they recall a time where, in the city of Kandy, their friendship was almost severed by their competing love for a young priestess, though they managed to put her aside and swear loyalty to one another. They re-affirm this vow in their reunion years later.  A boat later comes ashore, bearing a young priestess named Leila; she says nothing when she and Nadir recognize one another, then exits as she is led to the temple by the high priest Nourabad. That night, Nadir reminisces on his disloyalty to Zurga; not only had he broken his vow and pursued Leila years ago in the city of Kandy, but rumor of her presence in Ceylon was what drew him to the island. Following the sound of her singing, the two are passionately reunited. Despite Leila’s songs of prayer being needed to protect the fishermen, she assures Nadir that she will only sing for him.

When Nourabad reminds her that she must fulfill her duties to their god Brahma, even at the cost of her own life, she demonstrates her commitment by telling him of a time when she gave shelter to a refugee being hunted by enemies despite them threatening her with death. As thanks for her aid, the man gave her a necklace which he bade her always wear. The next time Nadir goes to see her, he is captured by the fishermen and brought before Zurga. Initially, Zurga decides on pardoning his dear friend, but when Leila is unveiled by Nourabad, he becomes furious when he recognizes her as his past love; Zurga sentences them both to death as a fierce storm brews.

When the storm, and Zurga’s wrath, both settle down, he brings in Leila to speak with her. After confessing his prior love, he remains intent on their execution. Leila requests that her necklace be given to her mother, and upon seeing it Zurga makes a startling revelation; Leila was the very same girl who sheltered him from his enemies long ago, for which he gave her the necklace. As Nadir and Leila await their mutual execution, the lighting of their pyre is delayed when the camp of the fishermen catches fire. While the men rush off to extinguish the fires, Zurga arrives to set Nadir and Leila free. The lovers depart and sing of the promise their life together holds. While the endings vary in different productions, they each end with Zurga’s death at the hands of his fishermen.

Famous Musical Numbers

The duet “Au fond du temple saint” is one of the most famous such passages in all of opera. In it, Nadir and Zurga recollect their memory of the first time they saw Leila; glimpsing briefly the woman they saw as a goddess before her veil, and their jealousies, remove her from sight. Utilizing harps and flutes, the established motif returns throughout the opera during moments which touch on the friendship shared by the two fishermen. Tenors and baritones around the world program the passage regularly at concerts and recitals.

Nadir’s aria “Je crois entendre encore” is also a major moment in the opera that also get recorded and performed regularly.

Watch and Listen

Here is a performance from the Janáčkova Opera starring Natália Achaladze-Romanová, Valerij Popov as Nadir,  Richard Haan as Zurga.


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