Chamber in Oprichnik Grigory Gryaznoy’s house. He is waiting for the guests. Grigory is desperate: he has fallen passionately in love with Marfa, daughter of the merchant Sobakin. He sent matchmakers to her father in vain: the merchant Sobakin refused cold, as Marfa is already betrothed to the boyar Ivan Lykov. All the thoughts of Grigory are about his love and the lucky rival.
The guests arrive. Among them is Malyuta Skuratov with oprichniks, Lykov, who has just returned to Russia, and Bomelius. After Lykov tells them of German lands Malyuta calls Lyubasha, his ‘god-daughter’ and Gryaznoy ‘s concubine, whom he had stolen from her own home, and asks her to sing a song, about bitter fate of a girl who is forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. Oprichniks thank for the song and depart.
Only Bomelius stays and Gryaznoy asks him to get a love potion and promises to reward him justly. The physician promises to provide him with powder that can arouse love in a girl’s heart.
Lyubasha, sensing that something is wrong, hides and listens to their conversation. After Bomelius has gone, Lyubasha declares her passionate love to Grigory. She won’t give in and vows cruel vengeance against the villainess.
A street in the Alexandrovskaya Sloboda. The parishioners are coming out of the monastery after the evening service. Martha is looking forward to the arrival of her fiancé - Ivan Lykov and Vasily Sobakin, trustworthy merchant. Marfa stands talking with her friend Dunyasha about her betrothed, Ivan Lykov, who she knows from a boy. A group of Oprichniks appears through the monastery gates. Marfa doesn’t recognize Ivan the Terrible who is leading the group, but the stranger’s intent gaze frightens her. It is only when she catches sight of her father and her betrothed, who are approaching the house, that she calms down. Marfa is seized with dismay.
Sobakin and Lykov appear, Lykov greets his bride with a bow. Sobakin invites everybody into the house and the girls follow them in. Dusk is falling.
Lyubasha is circling round the Sobakin house. She has found the rival’s house and wants to have a look at her. She cautiously steals up to the porch: she wants to have a look at her rival. Having peeped through the lit-up window, Lyubasha is struck by Marfa’s beauty. The desperate girl rushes to Bomelius’s house. She decides to ruin her rival, while she will replace the love potion ordered by Gryaznoy with poison.
Bomelius agrees, demanding in return Lyubasha’s love. Indignant, Lyubasha wants to leave, but Bomelius threatens to tell Gryaznoy what she has asked him for. The sound of Marfa’s laughter coming from the Sobakin’s house makes Lyubasha agree to Bomelius’s terms. The potion is ready, and she goes into his house. Poor Lyubasha goes for the shameful deal.
The Oprichniks appear on the street, coming back from an execution ride.
Chamber in Merchant Sobakin’s house. Wedding preparations at the Sobakin’s house are under way. Grigory Gryaznoy invites here as a matchmaker. The merchant tells Gryaznoy and Lykov that the wedding was supposed to have been celebrated long before, but it was interrupted by the Tsar’s ‘viewing of the bride’ that has gathered the most beautiful girls at the palace. In accordance with a royal custom, Ivan IV (known as "Ivan the Terrible") has been endeavoring unseen to select a bride. From the two thousand only twelve are left, among them are Marfa and Dunyasha. This alarms both Lykov and Gryaznoy: what should be undertaken, if the Tsar likes Marfa after all?
Lyubasha already managed to change a love potion on a terrible slow poison-dope.
Domna Saburova, Duniasha’s mother, appears. She describes the ceremony: the Tsar liked her daughter and he paid Dunyasha a lot of attention, joking and talking with her. Lykov sighs with relief. Everybody congratulates Marfa and Lykov. Sobakin blesses the young couple. Gryaznoy surreptitiously pours the potion into Marfa’s goblet, he congratulates the couple, hands them their goblets and makes them drink. Saburova strikes up a song in honour of the bride, and all the household joins in.
Suddenly appears Malyuta with the boyars and proclaims the Tsar’s will: Marfa is to be his wife.
The Tsar’s chamber where Marfa, the Tsar’s bride, is now living before her wedding. But she is ill, and bitter fears give Sobakin no peace.
Gryaznoy appears, and Marfa comes out of her room, pretending to be well. Gryaznoy tells Marfa that the “evil-doer” Lykov had confessed to giving Marfa a potion, and that he, Gryaznoy, with his own hands had carried out the Tsar’s sentence. Learning of the death of her beloved, Marfa falls unconscious to the floor. When she recovers, she recognizes no one.
Mistaking Gryaznoy for Lykov, she converses tenderly with him, recalling the happy days they have spent together. Shaken by Marfa’s words, Gryaznoy admits that he had slandered Lykov and that he was the one who gave Marfa the love potion. But Marfa doesn’t hear him at all, though. Gryaznoy is desperate with guilt.
Lyubasha who has appeared in the palace, tells Grigory how she had substituted poison for the love potion Bomelius had given him, and which Grigory had then given to Marfa. In a rage, Gryaznoy murders Lyubasha, and will be taken to prison eventually to be executed.
The guardsmen seize the criminal Bomelius, who had destroyed the princess.
Gryaznoy casts the final glance at Marfa: ‘Come tomorrow, Vanya!’ are her last words. Her tortured soul leaves the earthly world. The Tsar Ivan “the Terrible” appears, and all others – bow down before the court of the Creator, realizing how harmful crimes, weaknesses and passions rage.