The action unfolds in the Thrice-Tenth Kingdom in fantastical times.
The Astrologer appears. He addresses the audience:
Here before you an old tale
Will be brought to life by maskers.
The tale is a lie but includes a hint,
A lesson for good, fine fellows...
The crowd is assembled behind him. In fear the people gather near a tower on top of which a sentry stands. The Astrologer makes a gesture and the scene is transformed into Dodon’s kingdom.
A “meeting” of the boyars’ council is underway at the palace. The Tsar turns to the boyars for advice on how to protect his kingdom from attack. His eldest son proposes moving the army away from the border and placing it around the capital. The boyars and the Tsar noisily approve this plan. The old voivode Polkan has doubts as to the decision being the proper one. The Tsar’s youngest son proposes dismissing the army altogether and reassembling it should the enemy appear. Dodon is delighted! Polkan, however, rejects this proposal too. The duma council does not know what decision to take. Then the boyars propose divining the future using beans or dregs of kvass.
The Astrologer appears. He gives Dodon a magical Golden Cockerel which will always warn of any danger. The Tsar promises the Astrologer any reward he desires:
Your first desire
I will fulfil as my own.
The Astrologer departs. In line with custom the people assemble near the tower, where the Golden Cockerel now stands instead of the sentry. Pacified, Dodon goes to bed. The Golden Cockerel sends Dodon a vision in his peaceful sleep – a vision of an enchanting woman. As soon as the Tsar has fallen in love with this vision the Cockerel cries out “Take care, be on guard!” Much ado and fuss. The Tsar equips his forces, headed by his sons, and himself goes to sleep. His enchanting vision comes back once more. But the Cockerel again warns him of danger. Dodon, assembling an army of old men and invalids, sets out for battle together with Polkan.
Night. At the bottom of a deep ravine into which Dodon’s army has descended the Tsar is appalled to see his sons are dead – they have stabbed one another with their swords. Day dawns, and a brightly coloured tent appears before Dodon. A beautiful woman emerges from the tent; it is the Queen of Shemakha, whose song greets the rising sun. Dodon is captivated by her beauty and singing. With cunning tricks and deceit, the crafty beauty flatters Dodon and he proposes marriage to the Queen. She accepts. Changing her clothes and dressing Dodon in oriental garb (he is now as humble as a slave!), together with the remains of Dodon’s troops and her own retinue comprising various freaks, the Queen sets out for the capital.
Life in the capital is unsettled. The Cockerel has fallen strangely quiet and clouds have formed. All are gripped by panic. Suddenly the Golden Cockerel is on its guard – Dodon approaches. Before the stunned people a procession of freaks and monsters passes by – the retinue of the Queen of Shemakha. And there she is herself with Dodon, whose people barely recognise him...
The Astrologer appears. He reminds the Tsar of the latter’s promise and asks him for the Queen of Shemakha. Dodon attempts to make the elderly Astrologer see reason, but the latter insists on his rights. Enraged, Dodon strikes his forehead with a staff and the Astrologer drops to the ground. To the gloating laughter of the Queen, the Cockerel pecks the Tsar’s forehead. Thunder peals. Dodon’s entire kingdom vanishes in flames and clouds of smoke.
Once the smoke is dispelled the same tower, the confused populace and a fallen crown can be seen.
The Astrologer is still alive – he will never die. And now he finishes the tale he began earlier:
That’s how the story has ended...
But the bloody denouement,
However onerous it may be,
Should not cause you to worry.
And behind his back we see the people crowded around the tower. But at the top of the tower there is no sentry, no Cockerel and no Tsar...
What do you do when you're a pompous monarch and your advisors' advocate war? You set off to battle posthaste —but when you encounter a beautiful foe, military plotting turns to lovesick sighing. In this exotic and tuneful tale, the exquisite Queen of Shemakha entices bumbling King Dodon, who proves that there's no fool like an infatuated man. Enter a world where kisses are weapons and deceit is delightful, all buoyed up by the fantastic song of the Golden Cockerel. The music brims with Rimsky-Korsakov's signature sensual melodies, incandescent orchestrations, and razor-sharp wit.