The Pearl Fishers – Synopsis and Highlights
by Ross Hagen
The story of The Pearl Fishers revolves around a love triangle between Zurga, the leader of a fishing village, his old friend Nadir, and the priestess Leïla. Act I sets up this triangle, as Zurga and Nadir reunite after many years and recall how their friendship had been endangered because they were both in love with an anonymous priestess. In their famous duet, they pledge to never let their friendship be threatened again. A veiled priestess arrives and to absolutely nobody in the audience’s surprise she turns out to be the very woman that Zurga and Nadir once quarreled over. Nadir recognizes Leïla by her voice and they confess their continuing love, but are caught by the high priest Nourabad, who accuses Leïla of breaking her vow of chastity. Leïla is unveiled and Zurga, furious at his betrayal, condemns both Leïla and Nadir to death. In Act II, Zurga questions his decision but is further enraged when Leïla confesses her love of Nadir in an attempt to save him. However, Nadir ultimately rescues them both after discovering that Leïla had at one point sheltered him from a mob. In order to facilitate their escape, he sets fire to the village as a distraction and the opera ends rather ambiguously with Zurga awaiting the return of the villagers and his presumed punishment. Later productions of the opera added on a final reckoning for Zurga at the hands of the villagers.
The links in the synopsis go to specific points in a production by the Port Luis Opera in Mauritius and features the sort of staging we will see from the Utah Opera production. Unfortunately it seems that none of the full productions available online feature subtitles in English, but a libretto can be found here.
The opera opens with a chorus scene of fishermen and village women that sets the scene for the entire opera, referencing a “fiery beach,” “black-eyed girls,” and superstitious belief systems. The music here is an excellent example of the “orientalist” style associated with non-European “primitives” in the 19th century, beginning with a bagpipe-ish open-fifths drone and a dance rhythm on the tambourine. It also reminds a little of the “natives” music from the 1933 film King Kong, just one example of the longevity of this musical idiom. Zurga interrupts the dancing and notes that they need to choose a leader, and he is pleasantly surprised when they choose him.
In the next scene, Nadir arrives and is introduced as the long-lost friend of Zurga. He recounts his time in the wilderness and he and Zurga reminisce a little, although they recount that their relationship had been strained at one point because they both were in love with the same beautiful woman. In the famous duet, “Au fond du temple saint” they recount seeing her and note that even now the thought of her drives them apart, so they pledge to eternally remain friends. The chorus repeats their opening number amid much celebrating.
These two scenes are also an excellent example of the ways in which The Pearl Fishers adhered to the schemas and frameworks of operas in the time period. It was standard practice to begin an opera with a chorus dance number, followed by a dialogue between a soloist and the crowd, the introduction of the hero and other characters, and ending with a reprise of the opening chorus. Of course, these schemas became standardized because they were effective and efficient means to a dramatic end, especially if time was of the essence during the writing process. However, composers and librettists had to tread carefully lest their work become too “cookie cutter” as a result.
Continuing on, Zurga then sees a boat arriving and states that it must be an anonymous priestess, whose face no one can see, who comes every year to provide spiritual protection for the tribe. Leïla arrives and swears to remain faithful to her vows to pray by the sea day and night while remaining hidden behind her veil and take no friends, husbands, or lovers. In a bit of foreshadowing, Zurga threatens that the price for her betrayal would be death. Leïla suddenly recognizes Nadir and is shaken up by his presence. Zurga notices her anxiety and reminds her that she could leave and be free but she composes herself and commits to her duty.
After the villagers leave, Nadir remains alone and reflects on the fact that he recognized Leïla’s voice. He feels as if he should have told Zurga who she was, but he is so excited to see her again in spite of his earlier vow that he sings a wonderful aria, “Je crois entendre encore” and then goes to sleep. At this point the opera has a perfect pair of vows at cross-purposes between Nadir and Leïla. The fact that the conflict could have been avoided if Leïla had spoken up during her initiation or if Nadir revealed his knowledge of her identity to Zurga makes it all the more poignant (or frustratingly unbelievable, depending on how one views the libretto).
The final scene of Act 1 finds Leïla beginning her prayers at the sea with the priest Nourabad and a chorus of fakirs. Nadir awakens to the sound of her voice and Leïla continues with her prayer to the spirits. She briefly draws her veil aside and sees Nadir and subtly alters the final words of her prayer to now address him instead of the gods and spirits.
The second act begins with Leïla and Nourabad overlooking the shore. Leïla underscores her faithfulness to him by telling a story of when she saved a fugitive from a mob even as her own life was threatened. She is left alone and sings an ariaconveying her feelings for Nadir and her happiness at encountering him again. An oboe (double reeds are a favorite for conveying “exotic” flavor given their family relationship to shawms and a host of other non-Western reed instruments) signals Nadir’s entrance as he sings from offstage. After his entrance, Nadir and Leïla confess their love for one another despite the vows that would keep them apart and promise to meet again every evening.
However, when Nadir tries to sneak away he is found out by the fishermen who had been guarding Leïla’s position on the rocks. The priest Nourabad and the rest of the tribe vow to kill them for their treachery. Leïla is terrified while Nadir remains defiant. Zurga arrives and manages to calm the situation and convinces the fishermen to be content with merely banishing the two of them. However, Nourabad unveils Leïla and when Zurga recognizes her he realizes that he too has been betrayed so he orders death for them both.
In Act 3 we find Zurga torn over the fact that he has condemned his friend to death and regretting his rash decision to have them both Leïla and Nadir killed. Leïla interrupts his soliloquy and implores him to spare Nadir and only execute her, but her demonstration of love for Nadir only further enrages Zurga. However, as she is being taken away for execution, she gives her necklace to a young fisherman and Zurga recognizes that she was the woman who had saved him many years ago (recall Leïla’s story to Nourabad in Act 2 of having saved an anonymous fugitive).
The second half of Act 3 centers around the funeral pyre on which Nadir and Leïla are to be executed. A crowd of villagers surrounds the pyre and sings of their thirst for blood and vengeance. Suddenly the rear of the scene is light by a red light and Zurga arrives carrying an axe and tells the villagers that the village is on fire and they should run and save their children. All of the villagers leave except for Zurga, Nadir, Leïla, and the priest Nourabad, who hides in order to see what transpires. Zurga confesses to Nadir and Leïla that he lit the fire in the village and releases them, at which point Nourabad dashes off to warn the villagers. The three sing an almost oddly jubilant trio, given that they aren’t out of danger yet (especially Zurga).
The original version of the opera apparently ended with this scene or with Zurga sending them away as he awaits his fate. However, to have one of the major character’s fates left ambiguous was highly irregular, so the late 19th century revivals of The Pearl Fishers altered the ending to include Zurga’s death in order to satisfy the conventional demand for closure. In the extended finale of this performance Nourabad returns with some villagers and denounces Zurga. Zurga fights with the villagers but is stabbed and left for dead. As he is dying, he bids farewell to Leïla while she and Nadir sing from afar of their newfound happiness.
Ross Hagen is an Assistant Professor in Music Studies and the Music General Education coordinator at Utah Valley University.