Time: The autumn of 1612 and the winter of 1613.
The village of Domnino
Antonida is eager to marry Sobinin, but her father Susanin refuses permission until a Russian has been duly chosen to take the Tsar's throne. When Sobinin informs him that the Grand Council in Moscow has chosen a Tsar, everyone celebrates.
In a sumptuous hall, the nobility are celebrating the Polish dominance over the Russians with singing and dancing. Suddenly a messenger comes in, with the news that Mikhail Romanov has been selected as the Tsar of Russia and is now in hiding. The Poles vow to overthrow him.
Susanin and his adopted son Vanya pledge to defend the new Tsar. Susanin blesses Sobinin and Antonida on their upcoming wedding when a detachment of Polish soldiers bursts in, demanding to know the Tsar's whereabouts. Instead Susanin sends Vanya to warn the Tsar while he, Susanin, leads the soldiers off the trail, into the woods. Antonida is devastated. Sobinin gathers some men to go on a rescue mission.
A dense forest
Sobinin reassures his men of the rightness of their mission. Night falls. In a part of the forest near a monastery, Vanya knocks at the gates and alerts the inhabitants to spirit the Tsar away. Susanin has led the suspicious Polish troops into an impassable, snow-covered area of the forest. The Poles sleep while Susanin waits for the dawn and bids farewell to his children. A blizzard sets in, and when day breaks, the Poles awake. When they realize that Susanin has deceived them, they kill him.
Red Square, Moscow.
Across the stage walks a crowd of people, celebrating the triumph of the new Tsar. Alone in their own solemn procession, Antonida, Sobinin, and Vanya mourn Susanin. A detachment of Russian troops comes upon them and, after discovering their connection with Susanin, comforts them. As the scene changes to Red Square, the people proclaim glory to the Tsar and to Susanin's memory.
A Life for the Tsar, as it is known in English, although its original name was Ivan Susanin is a "patriotic-heroic tragic opera" in four acts with an epilogue by Mikhail Glinka. The original Russian libretto, based on historical events, was written by Nestor Kukolnik, Georgy Fyodorovich Rozen, Vladimir Sollogub and Vasily Zhukovsky. It premiered on 27 November 1836 OS (9 December NS) at the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in St. Petersburg. The historical basis of the plot involves Ivan Susanin, a patriotic hero of the early 17th century who gave his life in the expulsion of the invading Polish army for the newly elected Tsar Mikhail, the first of the Romanov dynasty, elected in 1613.