Long ago, ON A FARAWAY ISLAND...
It is time for the annual pearl harvest, and a group of villagers gathers at the beach. Zurga is chosen as leader and given the power of life and death over the community. His former friend Nadir, a hunter, returns after a long absence. It is clear that there is still a conflict between them. Left alone, Nadir and Zurga sing the duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” recalling the event that drove them apart. Months earlier, they both fell in love with the same woman. To preserve their friendship, they swear not to pursue her; instead, they vow to be friends until death.
A boat appears, bearing the high priest Nourabad and an unknown, veiled woman from a far-off island. She has been chosen to pray for the divers, to protect them from storms and ward off evil spirits. Zurga tells her if she is solitary and celibate, she will earn the most beautiful pearl found that season. But if she breaks her vow and betrays the village with a man, the punishment is death.
The priestess ascends a rock overlooking the sea to begin her vigil. As she prays, Nadir is once again spellbound by the sound of her voice. In the aria “Je crois entendre encore” he remembers how she enchanted him before; she is Léïla, the woman whom both he and Zurga love, and he has followed her to this village. Léïla realizes that Nadir is secretly listening to her, and her prayer overflows with joy.
Nourabad reminds Léïla that if she remains true to her oath, she will be protected. Léïla responds with the story of how once, as a girl, she had vowed to protect a fugitive. Even though her life was threatened, she refused to give the man away. He rewarded her with the necklace that she still wears. The priest leaves her. In the aria, “Comme autrefois,” she calms her own fears with the knowledge that Nadir is watching over her.
Nadir comes to her, and in a passionate duet they declare their love. Léïla warns him that if they are seen, they will be put to death. Shouts are heard from below: a storm has lashed the sea into a frenzy. The villagers discover that their priestess has betrayed them with Nadir, and in anger they seize the lovers. Zurga reminds them that only he can deal the death penalty. He decrees that the criminals’ lives will be spared, and tells to them to leave at once. But Nourabad rips off Léïla’s veil, and Zurga recognizes her as the woman that he and Nadir had forsworn. Furious that Nadir has betrayed him, Zurga condemns them both to death. The fury of the storm increases, and everyone prays to Brahma in terror.
On the beach after the storm, Zurga despairs over his jealousy and thwarted love in the aria “O Nadir.” Léïla is brought in and begs Zurga to save Nadir; she is to blame, she says. But her love for Nadir further inflames Zurga’s fury, and he resolves to have them both killed. Léïla asks one of the villagers to take her necklace to her mother when she is dead. Nourabad seizes the necklace and throws it in front of Zurga. Zurga recognizes the necklace as the one that he once gave to a young girl who saved him. He realizes he owes Léïla his life.
Léïla and Nadir will be killed at dawn, and the villagers sing and dance in bloodthirsty anticipation. As Nadir and Léïla prepare their souls for death, a red glow appears in the distance. Zurga enters, crying out that the village is on fire. The villagers run out in confusion, and Zurga tells Nadir and Léïla that he set the fire in order to save their lives. They escape together, and Zurga takes comfort in the fact that he has repaid his debt to Léïla and kept his vow to Nadir.