In the palace preparations are underway for a ’session’ of the boyars’ Duma. They are waiting for the Tsar. The Astrologer appears and addresses those present:
I’m a wizard. I’m endowed by occult knowledge with rare gifts — to call up shades and fill anew a lifeless breast with magic being.
Here before you, comic masks will bring to life an ancient fable. Though a tale, the moral’s true — Good young people, mark it well.
A hubbub breaks out. The Astrologer disappears. Enter the Tsar. The Tsar appeals to his boyars for advice on how to keep his kingdom safe from attack. His eldest son suggests bringing the army back from the frontier and posting it round the capital. Many support this idea. General Polkan, however, disapproves of the plan. The Tsar’s youngest son suggests the army should be disbanded altogether and only mobilized again at the appearance of the enemy. Dodon is delighted at the idea! But Polkan turns this suggestion down too. The Duma is at a loss to know what to do. They suggest that beans or kvas grains should be consulted. Enter the Astrologer. He presents Dodon with a magic Golden Cockerel who will always give warning of danger. The Tsar promises the Astrologer any reward he likes to name:
Your first wish I will fulfill Like it were my very own.
Exit the Astrologer. His fears allayed, Dodon goes to sleep. He has a sweet dream. The Cockerel starts to crow:
Cock-a-doodle-doodle-doo! Be alert! Be on your guard!
Noise and bustle. The Tsar mobilizes two armies which march off to the scene of war led by his sons. He then goes back to sleep. Dodon’s terrible dream. Again the Cockerel warns of danger. Having gathered together a force, Dodon now goes off to war himself accompanied by General Polkan.
Tsar Dodon, accompanied by his army, sees the bodies of his two dead sons. A horrified Dodon mourns his children. Suddenly a mysterious tent appears before him. A beautiful woman steps out of the tent and sings a hymn to the rising sun. It is the Tsaritsa of Shemakha. Dodon is bewitched by her beauty and her singing. By guile and artifice, the cunning Tsaritsa seduces Dodon who offers her his hand in marriage. His offer is accepted. The Tsaritsa of Shemakha and Dodon set off for the capital.
The populace are awaiting the return of their Tsar. Dodon and the Tsaritsa of Shemakha appear to the sound of trumpets. The populace greet them. The Astrologer makes his way through the crowd. He reminds the Tsar of his promise and asks for the Tsaritsa of Shemakha. Dodon tries to make the old astrologer see sense, offering him at least half his kingdom, but the latter is adamant. Loosing his temper, Dodon rough-handles the old man and chases him off. The Astrologer dies. The Golden Cockerel flies down off the tower and pecks Dodon on the forehead. Dodon dies. The Tsaritsa of Shemakha and the Cockerel vanish. The people are totally disorientated:
Oh what will the new dawn bring? How’ll we live without our Tsar?
The Astrologer appears from the crowd. He now concludes his tale:
That is how the story ends. But the bloody denouement, though distressing it may be, really should not worry you. Only I and the Tsaritsa were the real live people here. The others were delirium — a dream, a pale specter, a void...