The libretto, written by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov with Illya Tymenev can be said to be both simple yet complex: it's about unrequited love and jealousy but involving more than 5 people, the Marfa (Olga Kulchinskaya, soprano) (the daughter of Vasily Stepanovich Sobakin (Vladimir Matorin, bass, a Novgorod merchant), Grigory Grogoryevich Gryaznoy (Alexander Kasyanov, baritone) ("Grigory",) Lyubasha (Agunda Kulaeva, mezzo-soprano, Gryazsnoy's lover), Eliseus Romelius (Marat Gali, tenor, the Tsar's foreign physician) and Ivan Sergeyevich Lykov (Bogdan Volkov, Boyar). The story roughly goes as follows: Marfa and Lykov were childhood neighbors but when Lykov grew up, he left for foreign expeditions. Upon his return, Marfa's father arranged for them to get married. But unfortunately, in the meantime, Grigory has fallen in love with Marfa and secretly asked Bomelius for a potion which will enable whoever takes it to lose resistance to amorous advances. Once his lover Lyubasha (who has deserted his father to be with Grigory and who is still madly in love with him) finds out that she is no match for the beauty and purity of Marfa upon a clandestine visit to her house, she falls into despair. In her desperation, she too asks Bomelius for some powders which will cause whoever takes it to slowly die, intending to use it on Marfa so that Grigory will have no choice but stay with her.
When the opera opens, Lykov has just returned from abroad. Gryaznov throws a party for him and his friends including Grigory Lukyanovich (Malyuta) Skuratov (Oleg Tsybulko, an Oprichnik, Bass). When the party is over, it's already morning. Everyone goes to church and Grigory uses the occasion to seek help from Bomelius. After the church service, the Tsar, travelling incognito and his men pass by the church and sees Marfa, whose name had been submitted to him by Sobakin, previously charged with supplying to him 10 ladies as his potential bride. Marfa instinctively feels a certain threat from his intense look. After the church service, Sobakin invites Lykov to their house to talk about the coming wedding. Lyubasha also profits from the occasion to steal a glance of Marfa after which she visits Bomelius for that poison. Bomelius would agree to do so only on condition that she favors him with her love, something which she first refuses. However, when Bomelius threatens to expose her secret intentions, she accepts because upon reflection, she considers that her life has lost all meaning as she knows in her heart that she has lost Gryznov irretrievably.
Just as Sobakin was arranging for the bethrothal of her daughter to Lykov, the Tsar sends a message that he has chosen Marfa to be his bride! At the ceremony, Grigory proposes the traditional toast to the bethrothed in which he had secretly put into Marfa's cup what he thought was the love potion given him by Bomelius. Shortly afterwards, Marfa got dizzy and falls sick. After a few days, she got so sick that she can't recognize the people she sees.
In the meantime, Lykov was executed because Grigory wrongly accused him of having poisoned his bride. But upon seeing how even in her illness, Marfa is still thinking of Lykov and mistaking Grigory for him, he is struck by guilt and confesses his crime. At the last moment, Lyubasha appears and tells everyone the truth: it was she who switched the poison for the love potion which Marfa drank. Grigory kills her. He in turn is killed by Malyuta. The Tsar has lost his bride, Sobakin his daughter, Lykov her bethrothed and his life and Gryaznov and Lyubasha their lives and their beloved.
It was a very dramatic opera. The music provided by Bolshoi Orchestra and Chorus under Gannadi Rozhdestvensky was just right, never intrusive, blending perfectly with the singing by the wonderful singers. The sets based on the sketches by Fyodor Fedorovsky (1955) was simply amazingly beautiful and evokes just the right kind of atmosphere for each of the four acts. So are the costumes. I haven't seen that very many opera live. But of all that I have seen, this must count as the best ever.