Two sisters, Constance and Merricat Blackwood, live in isolation with their Uncle Julian in a large house on the outskirts of a village in Vermont. Several years ago one of them poisoned the rest of their family. Constance was brought to trial - and acquitted. Uncle Julian is writing a book about the murders, but his memory is wildly unreliable

Constance, in her late twenties, and Merricat, in her late teens, are bound together in a conspiracy of love and protectiveness against the world outside. Constance runs the household with a kindly, almost compulsive efficiency but cannot venture beyond it.

Merricat – bright, wayward and introverted – runs the errands, and so must brave the scorn of the local community. Each finds comfort in ritual – Constance in her immutable timetable of chores, Merricat in the protective magic with which, she believes, she can keep the world – and change – at bay. It becomes increasingly obvious that it was Merricat who committed the murders.


One day, their cousin Charles arrives, his sights set on the family money that the sisters’ father kept in a large safe in the house. Initially he is charming, but he soon becomes aggressive towards Merricat, finding her rude and strange. Instead of taking Merricat’s side, Constance is attracted to Charles, and begins to suspect that the isolated life they have been leading may have been a mistake. It is time for change.

Merricat, furious with Charles, and terrified by the prospect of anything that disrupts her life with Constance, sets fire to the house by throwing Charles’s smouldering pipe into a waste-paper basket. Charles fetches the fire brigade. Constance and Merricat flee to the garden. Uncle Julian dies. The fire brigade arrives, but with it come the villagers, who loot the house once the fire is out.

Listen to Orlando Gough describe the relationship between sisters Merricat and Constance.

Listen to Tim Knapman describe the relationship between Merricat, Constance and Uncle Julian with the people of the local town.

Alone at last, Constance and Merricat return to the house – which, in its ruin, now looks like a castle – and barricade themselves inside. Here they can live the life of isolated, unchanging contentment they have always aspired to. Charles returns, but they do not let him in. Children come to play in the garden, spooking each other with tales of the ruin, and the women who are said to live inside. Villagers bring offerings of food to the house, hoping to propitiate the spirits within.

Read full treatment of the opera