When Gryaznoy’s request to marry the beautiful Marfa is rejected by her father, because she is already engaged, Gryaznoy cannot let it go. He commissions aand love potion from a foreign physician, and plans to give it to Marfa at her engagement party. His plot has been observed by his mistress, Lyubasha, a woman who has sacrificed everything for him, and whom he now repays with silence and bitterness. Lyubasha makes her own deal with the physician, and commissions a poison that will slowly take away someone’s beauty, swapping Gryaznoy’s potion for her own poison.
During the engagement part, the Tsar sends a messenger to announce that he has chosen Marfa to be his own bride, but it is already too late; Marfa is succumbing to the effects of Lyubasha’s poison. Gryaznoy has Lykov executed, under false charges of trying to murder Marfa, but he still cannot understand why Marfa is so sick. When he visits her, Marfa is half mad, and thinks that he is Lykov. She dreams of their life together, and tells him to return to her tomorrow, before dying in his arms. Only now does Lyubasha reveal the truth: she swapped the poison to hurt them both. Enraged, Gryaznoy kills Lyubasha. He is imprisoned and will be executed for his crime.
Despite being set against the backdrop of 16th century Russia, with its terrifying ruler Ivan IV, and the constant threat of the Oprichnina, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride is, at its heart, an opera about intense human emotion, and how lust and jealousy lead to the destruction of so many lives.