Bruscantini’s father was a lawyer, and initially Sesto followed in his footsteps, studying law at Macerata University. By the time he graduated in 1944 however, he had already won a singing competition in Florence. During 1945 he studied with Luigi Ricci in Rome, paying for his studies by writing comments in verse on topical news for a weekly paper. He made his operatic stage début in 1946 at Civitanova as Colline/La Bohème, and subsequently spent a year at the Rome Opera School, singing small rôles such as the Notary/Gianni Schicchi and the First Nazarene/Salome. He also sang in concerts and began a long relationship with Italian Radio, taking the part of Sulpice in Donizetti’s La figlia del reggimento, an infectious account of the opera that was later issued on disc.
It was as Don Geronimo/Il matrimonio segreto (Cimarosa) that Bruscantini made his highly successful début at La Scala, Milan, in 1949, following this in the next year with Selim/Il turco in Italia at the Rome Opera, in a star-studded cast that included Maria Callas, Cesare Valletti and Mariano Stabile. He made the first of many appearances at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera during 1951 as Don Alfonso/Così fan tutte, singing opposite the Fiordiligi of Yugoslav soprano Sena Jurinac (to whom he was later married for a while). Glyndebourne became a spiritual home for Bruscantini: in 1952 he switched rôles in Così fan tutte to sing Guglielmo and enjoyed great success as Dandini/La Cenerentola. Immediately afterwards he appeared at the Salzburg Festival, singing Don Pasquale.
By the mid-1950s Bruscantini was established as one of the finest light baritones of his generation: one who sang with great vocal style and elegance, and cut a fine and often witty figure on stage. In addition to performing regularly with the Glyndebourne company at both its home in Sussex and at the Edinburgh Festival, he appeared throughout Italy, singing at Bologna, Genoa, Naples, Rome and Venice as well as Milan. Unusually, and with great versatility, he often alternated rôles, moving from Figaro to the Count/Le nozze di Figaro, Guglielmo to Alfonso/Così fan tutte, Belcore to Dr Dulcamara/L’elisir d’amore and Malatesta to Don Pasquale/Don Pasquale.
In 1960 Bruscantini began to sing slightly heavier and more dramatic rôles, commencing with the four baritone villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann and Marcello/La Bohème at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples. At Glyndebourne that year he sang Ford/Falstaff for the first time. Later rôles of this type included Posa/Don Carlos (Trieste, 1962), Renato/Un ballo in maschera (Florence, 1965), and Giorgio Germont/La traviata (Genoa 1966). This last was perhaps Bruscantini’s finest dramatic characterisation; he sang it in Chicago (where he had made his début in 1960 as Figaro/Il barbiere di Siviglia), Madrid, Marseilles, Palermo and Parma. The critic Elizabeth Forbes has written of this portrayal: ‘The depth of feeling he brought to the rôle was unique in my experience, and he evoked enormous sympathy for a personage who is often taken to be unsympathetic.’ Bruscantini continued to alternate rôles within operas, for instance switching between Riccardo and Giorgio/I puritani and Alfonso and Baldasare/La favorita.
By now singing regularly at major international houses such as the Vienna State Opera, Bruscantini made a belated début at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1971 as the Rossini Figaro. He returned there in 1974 to considerable acclaim as Dr Malatesta. He first appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, at the beginning of 1981 as Selim/L’italiana in Algeri, returning as Dr Dulcamara (1981), Dr Bartolo/Il barbiere di Siviglia (1982) and Michonnet/Adriana Lecouvreur (1983). Bruscantini’s singing career extended well into the 1980s, when he appeared for three consecutive years at the Salzburg Festival as Don Alfonso, also returning to Glyndebourne in 1985 as Don Magnifico/La Cenerentola.
He retired from the stage in 1990 at the age of seventy, after singing Don Alfonso at Macerata, but continued to be active as a teacher, establishing a school of singing in his home town of Civitanova Marche. Throughout his career Bruscantini was always a professional to his fingertips, able to deliver completely satisfying and fully rounded interpretations whatever the circumstances, and singing a total of 154 rôles in 113 operas. In an interview with Bruce Burroughs that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1988 he commented on this extraordinary record of achievement: ‘If a singer lives in a sane manner and has a good technique, it is very difficult for the voice to give out. In the theater, we don’t count the years, we count what’s inside.’
Bruscantini left an extensive discography which chronicles in some detail the various stages of his career. It ranges from the early Italian radio productions, which first appeared on the Cetra label, through the Herbert von Karajan Così fan tutte for Walter Legge and the wonderful Mozart and Rossini opera recordings from Glyndebourne conducted by Vittorio Gui, to later sound and video recordings of larger-scale works with conductors such as Lamberto Gardelli and Riccardo Muti. One especially significant recording is of the historic first broadcast by the BBC in 1976 of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra in the original 1857 version, which preserves Bruscantini’s fine account of the title rôle.