The duet “Au fond du temple saint” is one of the most loved duets in all operatic literature. It is from the 1863 opera Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) by French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875). Bizet is perhaps best known for another opera, the masterpiece Carmen. Les pêcheurs de perles was written earlier, and was not well received by critics at the time. However, the opera was premiered before Bizet’s 25th birthday, and showed a remarkable ability for somebody so young.
After Bizet’s death, Les pêcheurs enjoyed a revival, and modern critics have looked upon the opera much more favorably than Bizet’s contemporaries. Although the entire opera is not performed as often as Carmen, this famous tenor-baritone duet has become a classic in its own right. It is often performed separately from the whole opera as a feature in concert or recital.
“Au fond du temple saint” focuses on the relationship between Nadir (tenor) and Zurga (baritone), who had both fallen for the same woman, Leila (soprano). As they sing the duet, they are reuniting after a time apart. They sing of the time they were in conflict over Leila and recall their oath to renouce their love for her and pledge undying friendship to each other instead.
As is often the case in opera, their friendship falls apart shortly thereafter when Nadir sees Leila and immediately rushes into her arms again. Zurga finds out and orders them both to be killed.
However, this duet expresses the intent to remain lifelong friends, foreshadowing a resolution that saves Nadir in the end. Zurga discovers later that Leila had saved his life when she was just a young child. Seeing her as that child instead of a romantic partiner, his anger subsides, and he sets Leila and his friend Nadir free to be together at the end of the opera.
The recording of Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill is considered one of the best renditions of this incredible duet. Feel free to listen and enjoy.