Pearl hunters gathered to elect a new leader. Of all the young men, the honor of becoming one goes to the best and most experienced – Zurga. A stranger approaches them. Zurga recognizes in him a childhood friend – Nadira. They have not seen each other for many years. Once friends met the beautiful Leila. They both fell in love with her, and in order not to become enemies, they decided to part ways. Nadir left his native land and went on long journeys. And now, calming his passion and pain, he returned. Zurga wonders if his friend’s feelings for Leila have changed. Nadir assures that he no longer claims it. His words make Zurg remember the ancient history with excitement and pain. The young men swear eternal friendship. A priestess appears, whose prayers and songs are designed to protect pearl seekers from evil spirits during dangerous fishing. No one suspects that the priestess is Leila. Noticing Nadir, the girl can not contain the emotions that overwhelmed her. Zurga takes an oath from Leila, whom he does not recognize: under the threat of death, she has no right to show her face and must remain faithful to the vow of chastity. Hearing the woman’s voice, Nadir recognizes Leila in her and with new strength in his heart awakens the former love. High Priest Nurabad accompanies Leila and reminds her of the oath. The girl assures that she knows how to keep her word. She remembers how as a child, risking her life, she hid a fugitive in her house, who was being chased by enemies. As a token of gratitude, he gave her a necklace, which she still does not part with. Leila is immersed in memories of her love.
From afar comes the song of Nadir, who decided to meet his beloved, despite the ban. The joy of meeting and fear of punishment are fighting in the heart of the girl. She asks Nadir to leave, but Nurabad is already here, and with him – raised with disturbing news pearl divers. They demand the death penalty for traitors. Zurga, wanting to help his friend, orders the offenders to be released, but when he learns that the priestess is Leila, he angrily decides that they will both die. Later, Leila is brought to Zurga. She is not going to ask for mercy for herself, because she has broken her vow and will proudly accept the punishment, but sincerely asks to save Nadir. This angers Zurg even more. Jealous, he confesses his love for Layla and tries to control her. The girl curses him, and Zurga insists on execution again. Leila asks to fulfill the last request – to take her necklace to her mother. Zurga recognizes in the jewel the gift he once gave to the girl who saved him. The man is shocked, because he has just sentenced to death the one he owes his life to. The people are mad in anticipation of the bloody rite. Leila and Nadir are waiting to die. Unexpectedly, Zurga reports that angry gods have set fire to their homes. The people are in a hurry to put out the flames. Zurga releases Nadir and Leila. To save her, he set fire to the village, and now the lovers are free. Zurga shows them the way to escape.
The opera is performed with one intermission
Libretto by Eugene Cormon and Michel Carré