Act One

Pearl fishermen are getting ready for the new fishing season. They meet in the place which is the most important in the life of their community. They have to choose the leader from their midst, and Zurga becomes the head fisherman.
Nadir appears, and Zurga recognizes him as his old friend. Some time ago they fell in love with the same girl, called Leïla, and parted their ways not to become enemies. Nadir agrees to stay with the fishermen. He assures Zurga that he has overcome his feelings and nothing can stand in the way of their friendship now.
A boat approaches the shore. There is a priestess in it: her prayers and songs are meant to protect the pearl fishermen at their dangerous tasks and pacify evil spirits. Nobody suspects that the priestess is Leïla. Zurga makes her swear on pain of death to keep her face covered and to stay true to her vow of chastity. As she swears that, she sees Nadir, who is as shocked by their unexpected encounter as she is. Leïla climbs to the top of a high cliff, where she gives her prayers. Nadir follows her to the bottom of the cliff to make sure it is really her.

Act Two

Night falls. Nourabad leaves Leïla in her refuge at the top of the cliff and reminds her about her vows. The girl assures the priest that she knows how to keep her word. She remembers that, as a child, risking her own life, she gave shelter to a fugitive, being chased by his enemies. To thank her, he gave her a necklace, which she never parts with.
Leïla is alone. She can hear Nadir’s song from afar. There is a struggle between the joy of the new meeting and the fear of inevitable death; however, the enamored fisherman has already sneaked into her secret refuge. She begs him to leave, but it is too late. Nourabad has come together with the fishermen, worried by the news. They demand punishment by death. At first, Zurga tells the fishermen to let the oath breakers go, but when he learns that the priestess is actually Leïla, he decides to kill both. A storm rises.

Act Three

Scene One

Grave thoughts trouble Zurga. Leïla comes to him in hope to beg for pardon for Nadir. That only makes Zurga’s jealousy stronger, and he demands death for both once more. Leïla is ready for her execution and asks to pass her necklace to her mother.

Scene Two

The pearl fishermen are waiting for the sunrise, when the criminals are to burn at the stake. Suddenly, a bright fire lights the place of execution. Zurga brings the news of the gods’ anger and of the fire they have sent onto the fishermen's houses. Everybody scatters in alarm. Zurga confesses that the fire is not an accident and admits starting the fire himself; he recognized his own present in Leïla’s necklace. He thanks her for saving him and sets both lovers free. Leïla and Nadir run away. Zurga stays alone.