Like the composer's life, this "lyrical drama in three acts" with words by Gabriel and Sylvain Saint Étienne, is an admixture of exoticism with workaday ordinariness. Similar to David's Herculaneum (1859) with both Christians and barbarians perishing in a volcanic eruption, Lalla-Roukh (1862) with its dreamy evocation of Kashmir, and orientalist La captive (1864), La Perle Du Brésil is filled with dramatic scenes and exotica: a sea storm along the Brazilian coastline, a ship attack by natives, a Hymn to the Great Spirit, sailors' choruses, a seemingly endless bolero and lots of music in an imagined Brazilian style. But most of these are expressed in standard tonality and orchestral timbres.
The impressive overture combines the traditional double-dotted rhythms of the French overture with imitations of jungle birds (high tremolos and staccato scales) and intimations of arias and grand rhythmic choruses waiting behind the curtain.
Act I begins with a Prayer in the Wings in which the Portuguese Admiral Don Salvador sings with a chorus of the sailors under his command. He praises Zora, a young girl whom he encountered in Brazil. He has fallen in love with her, and intends to educate and eventually marry her. The men pray on their knees to God and Saint Raphael for help on their return journey from South America, the hymn-like writing underscored with anxious tremolos. A recitative dialogue between a young sailor Rio and Lorenz, a lieutenant of the palace guards, reveals that Lorenz is in love with Zora and plans to disguise himself as a sailor in order to be with her. He sings of his love in a balladic Romance of touching simplicity in its modal harmony. We meet Zora in her mysterious "Ballade du Grand Esprit" which leads into an elaborate Festival Scene with a Bolero and rhythmic choral chants.
A sailors' work song opens Act II. Zora praises the sea, and various dances follow: a waltz, tarantella, and a rondeña. Lorenz and Zora sing a love duo that likens the ship to their prison, but Lorenz declares that his homeland is wherever Zora resides. Zora says "all my happiness is to be in your eyes, I give you my heart."
At the end of Act II, a tempest arises at sea and forces the ship to seek anchor at the nearest port which is still in Brazil. A grand quartet of soloists with chorus interweaves texts in simultaneous expressions of love and jealousy with prayers for protection from the storm.
A curious romantic instrument interlude "La Rêve" (The Dream) opens Act III. Zora sings the beautiful "Charmant oiseau" (Thou charming Mysoli bird) with its elaborate flute obbligati and vocalises. The ship is attacked by natives, Salvador encourages his men with the War Song, but when Zora repeats the Great Spirit hymn, the Brazilians recognize her and make peace. In gratitude, Salvador releases Zora to marry Lorenz, and a grand chorus with the principals, the sailors, and the Brazilians ends the opera.
This opera was premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris on November 22, 1851.