AS EVERY STUDENT of the classics knows, Greek tragedy was originally music was as emotionally charged as Bob Telson's score for "The Gospel At Colonus," the adaptation of Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus," is a matter for specialists. All the modern listener need know is that it works, not only as drama but also as gospel music.
Telson, to be sure, is not a gospel songwriter in the sense that Thomas A. Dorsey was, but he is a skillful imitator of gospel styles and has woven quite a few standard mannerisms into his material. Consequently, from the bluesy "Lift Me Up" to the joyous backbeat of "Never Drive You Away," the 11 songs included here work as a sort of mini-anthology of Pentecostal music.
But, as with all gospel music, the performances are what ultimately make the songs live, and "The Gospel at Colonus" is blessed with a multitude of great voices. To hear the vocal give-and-take between Sam Butler and Clarence Fountain on "Stop Do Not Go On" is to understand the drama of Oedipus' arrival at Colonus on a level words alone could not convey. As presented here, it's a vivid struggle between salvation and damnation. Similarly, Fountain's solo on "A Voice Foretold," with ethereal backings by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, presents Oedipus' prayer for respite with devastating emotional clarity. By the end of this remarkable album, even those without a grounding in the classics will have gained an understanding of catharsis. ORIGINAL CAST -- "The Gospel at Colonus" (Warner Bros. 25182-1); showing at the Arena Stage through December 30.