A seashore on Ceylon
There is a short prelude after which the curtain rises on a group of fishermen and their families working, singing and dancing (Sur la grève en feu). When Zurga enters and reminds them it is time to select a leader, they choose him. They agree to give him absolute power and he accepts. Nadir, a young fisherman and former friend of Zurga's appears, and they joyfully greet each other.
Left alone, Zurga and Nadir recall their former rivalry over the beautiful priestess Leïla, and how, to save their friendship, they swore never to see her again (Au fond du temple saint). They are interrupted by news of the arrival of veiled woman who, to ward off evil spirits, is to pray for fishermen at sea. She is accompanied by the high priest Nourabad and is welcomed by the people. Zurga has her swear that she will remain veiled and chaste; if she does so, she will be rewarded with the finest pearl found, if not, she will die. The woman is Leïla, and in spite of her veil, she and Nadir recognize each other. After she reaffirms her vows and is led to the temple by Nourabad, all leave except Nadir. He tells how he has dreamt of her and followed her here (Je crois entendre encore). He falls asleep, and Leïla appears on a rock above the shore. When he wakes, she removes her veil, and they sing of their love.
That evening, in front of the temple
The fishermen have returned safely, and Leïla is released from her vigil for the evening. Nourabad reminds her of her vow, and she tells him she has always been faithful, even when faced with death. When she was a child, in spite of being threatened with knives, she helped a fugitive escape. He rewarded her with a necklace.
Alone in the temple, she senses Nadir's presence (Comme autrefois). When he appears, she admits her love (Ton coeur n'a pas compris le mien), but she pleads with him to leave; it is dangerous for him to be with her. It is too late; Nourabad has seen him, and Nadir is captured. Although Nourabad and the crowd call for the lovers' death, Zurga reminds them that he has sole power and will be merciful. When Nourabad tears the veil from Leïla, Zurga realizes that Nadir has betrayed their vow. His mercy changing to rage, he swears revenge.
Scene 1 — Zurga's tent
Zurga regrets the rage and jealousy that has made him condemn his old friend. (O Nadir, tendre ami de mon jeune âge). Leïla comes to beg for Nadir's life. Although he had planned to spared them, his jealousy when he realizes she loves Nadir leads him to order their death. Before she is led off, Leïla produces her necklace, asking that it be sent to her mother. Zurga recognizes it — he is the fugitive she saved as a girl!
Scene 2 — place of execution
Anticipating the execution, the villagers perform a frenzied dance. As Leïla and Nadir are led to the funeral pyre, a red light appears in the sky. Nourabad thinks it is the dawn, but Zurga announces that the village is on fire. As the people rush off to save their homes and children, Zurga tells the lovers that he set the fire; the necklace was his. He is repaying his debt to Leïla by setting them free.
Courtesy of San Diego Opera’s Operapaedia